Cleveland Browns tight end David Njoku has fallen victim to recent scapegoating, and must be featured more in 2021. As the team continues to implement a multitude of 12 and 13 personnel sets to their offense, Njoku's snap count must increase as well.
Austin Hooper is the highest-paid tight end in the room, signing a massive $42 million contract over the next four seasons. That did not stop the Browns from using a fourth round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft on Mackey Award-winning tight end Harrison Bryant as well. The most intriguing man of the unit though may just be the former first round pick in Njoku.
The Browns traded back into the first round that year after selecting both Myles Garrett and Jabrill Peppers prior to snagging Njoku. During his time in Cleveland, however, Njoku has had quite the roller coaster ride, culminating in a request for a trade last summer.
He started off his career by racking up 386 yards and four touchdowns on 32 catches as a rookie despite a lack of any coherent quarterback in 2017. Njoku really looked to be on the fringe of being a top-10 tight end during his sophomore season, a year where he caught four more touchdowns and hit nearly 700 yards receiving.
Trending in a direction that looked to place Njoku as one of the most explosive targets, his career then took a turn for the worst under the Freddie Kitchens and John Dorsey era. Despite a fast start to the season, racking up four catches and a touchdown in the Week 1 loss to the Tennessee Titans, Njoku then broke his wrist in Week 2 and then spent the next 11 weeks on Injured Reserve.
Upon returning to the lineup in Week 14, Njoku spent the rest of the season in the doghouse of Kitchens and Dorsey, similar to the situation wide receiver Rashard Higgins found himself in as well. After his treatment from the previous front office, and after the new front office added two tight ends to the roster, who can really blame a former first round pick for seeking a fresh start?
At the end of the day, Njoku withdrew his request for a trade and put his head down, and went to work. Coming into the season, there was a stigma to his game: he drops too many passes and cannot block when asked to. There were merits to the drops of Njoku’s game as well. His sophomore season he had a drop rate of nearly seven percent and dropped two passes on 10 targets during his brief 2020 campaign as well.
However, even if his snap count and targets were limited, the improvements to Njoku’s game were tremendous. He dropped just one pass on 29 targets (3.4 percent drop rate) and had a great season as both a run and pass blocker as well. Quarterback Baker Mayfield had a quarterback rating of 110.3 when targeting the former first rounder a year ago.
All in all, Njoku tallied 213 yards and two touchdowns on 19 catches. He saw just 29 targets on the season as well, making the most of every look he received. He had a catch rate of over 65 percent on the season, with an average of 11 yards per reception and an average depth of target of over seven yards. While the box score suggests a down season, Njoku actually looked like the best tight end on the roster for chunks of the season at a time.
Despite the massive contract he signed, Hooper had trouble fitting into the offense for most of the season. On 70 targets, Hooper racked up 46 catches for 435 yards and four touchdowns. He also dropped two passes on the year, totaling a drop rate of nearly three percent, and had a catch rate of 65.7 percent with an average depth of target of over six yards.
Mayfield had a quarterback rating of 95.8 when targeting Hooper, who averaged over nine yards per target. This level of production is nearly identical to Njoku’s a year ago (and maybe even trending towards Njoku). Needless to say, the Browns did not get the Pro Bowl play out of Hooper that he put on display over the last two seasons with the Atlanta Falcons.
Bryant on the other hand, had a drop rate of nearly eight percent of his looks, with Mayfield’s quarterback rating hanging around 85 when targeting him. Bryant finished with 238 yards receiving and three touchdowns on 24 catches. His catch rate hit at 63.2 percent and his average depth of target was nearly eight yards. His yards per target hung at just six yards as well. Bryant also struggled with ball security a year ago as well, fumbling twice in crucial moments for the Browns.
As the Browns look to add a necessary level of verticality and explosiveness to their offense in 2021, a heavier dose of Njoku is on the horizon. Even if Hooper returns to form in 2021 for the Browns, there is a level of explosiveness to Njoku’s game that Hooper cannot match. There is even an argument to paying Njoku as his contract dwindles and sticking with him long-term over Hooper.
Can the Browns get Njoku’s production back up to that of his sophomore season? It is certainly possible, but he has certainly earned a higher snap count than he received a year ago. He is younger than Hooper, the same age as Harrison, and his athletic ceiling is far above the others in the room. This cannot be glossed over.
Not only is the ceiling unlimited for Njoku, a ceiling we have seen glimpses of, but his alignment versatility gives Stefanski and the Browns’ offense another necessary chess piece. Again, the blocking excuse is out the window as well as Njoku produced the best blocking grade in the room a year ago according to PFF. In fact, 2020 was not even Njoku's best run blocking grade, as he received a higher grade in 2018.
It may be time to re-evaluate just how to appropriately view Njoku as a run blocker, as he has been a good run blocker since the second half of the 2018 season (outside of his forgettable 2019 year). His pass blocking, however, took a massive leap in success though. All in all, Njoku put his head down and went to work for the Browns a year ago.
The Browns and Njoku will be at their best when he is moved around into different looks in the offense. Njoku saw success in-line a year ago but also thrived when he was placed in one-on-one matchups in the slot as well. Good luck finding a nickel cornerback tall and strong enough or linebacker athletic enough to hang with Njoku on a consistent basis.
The biggest strength of the game of Njoku is his ability to get vertical make plays at the catchpoint. This has been a feature of Njoku's game since entering the league, as he has been a dominant presence in the red zone. However this past season and going back to 2018, Njoku has shown the ability to cover significant ground after the catch as well.
Underneath or over the top, Njoku is the biggest weapon in the tight end room. If he can find the level of consistency and development that he saw a year ago with a larger workload in 2021, then a big year could be in store for the fifth-year tight end. As it stands Njoku certainly deserves a larger snap count than Bryant this season, and he could work his way to the top of the depth chart moving into the future should Hooper fail to take a step forward.
Take 2019 out of the picture for Njoku the same way it has been removed for Higgins and Mayfield. Look at the broader scope of Njoku's career from 2017 to today after that. The lens in which Njoku has been most often viewed has been a disappointment, a scapegoat while Demetrius Harris and Pharoah Brown were senselessly given his reps.
In reality, Njoku had a productive start to his career, and there is no reason he cannot continue developing with the best yet to come. With the opportunity that 2021 should provide for Njoku, a big season looks to be on the horizon.