Cleveland Browns Post-Season Positional Review: Tight Ends

Heading into the offseason following an AFC divisional round loss, the Browns look to review each position and how to improve in 2021. The next position group reviewed will be the tight ends.
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The Cleveland Browns tight end room is filled with talent and left much to be desired heading into next season. Production throughout the season was relatively lackluster compared to the expectations. GM Andrew Berry improved the position group prior to the season by signing Austin Hooper in free agency and drafting Harrison Bryant to pair with David Njoku. Understanding that Kevin Stefanski’s offensive scheme heavily utilized personnel sets with two tight ends, the impact from the position group was important. Receiving numbers were underwhelming this season but run blocking on the edge was pretty solid.

Austin Hooper

46 Receptions

435 Receiving Yards – 4 Touchdowns

PFF Grades

69.8 Offense Grade (21st / 71)

72.0 Receiving Grade (16th / 50)

58.9 Run Block Grade (46th / 76)

Austin Hooper was one of the big money free agents brought in during free agency to improve the offense. Signing a four year contract Hooper came into lofty expectations after his deal reset the tight end market at the time. Financially it made sense for Andrew Berry to get ahead of the curve before stars at the position signed new deals. Sadly Hooper did not produce in the manner many may have hoped for after two straight Pro Bowl seasons in Atlanta. Hooper finished the season with his lowest receptions and yardage totals since his rookie season. Granted it is his first season in the offense but the production totals need to improve given the commitment made by the front office.

Playing in thirteen games this season Hooper missed two games prior to the bye week due to a ruptured appendix. Prior to the injury Hooper was improving his chemistry with Baker Mayfield having three straight games of five receptions. Following the injury it took a few games for their connection to bare any decent fruit. Momentum really began to build in week fifteen against the New York Giants as he posted at least four receptions and scoring touchdowns in three of four games including the wild card round.

Hooper will continue to be the staple at the tight end position in the foreseeable future as long as he remains healthy. The expectation for Hooper was never top five level production given his skillset based on the contract he received. Hooper is a player that is savvy at finding open spots in the zone and being a sure handed target. He has the ability to be the safety blanket over the middle to help extend drives while also blocking on the edge. It may not sound flashy but if Hooper can provide a similar clutch impact like Jason Witten during his prime, then his return of investment would be high given how the roster is currently constructed.

Harrison Bryant

24 Receptions

238 Receiving Yards – 3 Touchdowns

PFF Grades

59.4 Offense Grade (53rd / 71)

56.7 Receiving Grade (44th / 50)

61.2 Run Block Grade (38th / 76)

Harrison Bryant is a talented rookie that fell in the Browns lap during the fourth round. The tight end position is one of the toughest to learn in the NFL for a rookie. Players must be able to catch like a receiver and block defensive linemen. Bryant took on this challenge without a rookie minicamp and a training camp competition against the four year veteran David Njoku. Bryant earned the right to be in the starting lineup earning the Maurice Bassett Award and out snapped Njoku for the season. Yet even though Bryant was given more opportunities he still struggled during different points of the season.

Bryant definitely experienced weeks where it seemed Baker Mayfield lost trust in him. After his costly fumble against the Raiders, Bryant saw only two targets through week thirteen. The more concerning detail is that he still played over 50% of the offensive snaps and Mayfield simply was not looking his way. Also during this period, he fumbled again during the Jacksonville game when he got those two targets. Mistakes started to pile up in the back half of the season after a good start with limited opportunities.

Everything this season was not negative when it came to Harrison Bryant as the rookie tight end showed why the coaching staff started him in nine games. He should toughness and decent run blocking ability against linemen and linebackers which was a question mark for him coming out of college. Bryant is a good route runner and when given extra opportunities when Hooper was out of the lineup he scored two touchdowns against the Bengals. Bryant has a good foundation to build upon and the John Mackey award winner should only get better as he grows into the position.

David Njoku

19 Receptions

213 Receiving Yards – 2 Touchdowns

PFF Grades

70.1 Offense Grade (18th / 71)

67.6 Receiving Grade (23rd / 50)

63.6 Run Block Grade (29th / 76)

David Njoku is only the player besides Myles Garrett remaining on the Browns from the 2017 NFL Draft class. Entering the season GM Andrew Berry quickly exercised the fifth-year option to keep Njoku through 2021. The young tight end has a mixed bag of results during his tenure as a first round draft pick. In 2018, Njoku posted career highs in receptions and receiving yards and the following season he played in only four games. This season he was faced with new training camp competition and fell to third on the depth chart. Now entering the final year of his rookie contract questions still remain about the young player’s future in Cleveland.

Playing in only 36% of the offensive snaps this season Njoku is stuck in football purgatory. He is a player that has outstanding athletic ability but has not lived up to his first round pick status. Early in his career drops were a concern along with his limited ability as a run blocker. Throughout the season Njoku quietly proved his doubters wrong posting the highest catch rate of his career and is a much improved blocker. In fact he posted a higher PFF grade in every category compared to Harrison Bryant who surpassed him on the depth chart. Njoku also posted the second best passing blocking grade (77.4) out of all skill positions along with the highest run blocking grade of tight ends.

Njoku provides value to the offense with his outstanding leaping ability and athleticism to help stretch the seam. He had the highest yards per reception of all tight ends on the roster and made numerous contested catches down the field during the season. Njoku has plenty of talent and the front office has one more season to evaluate his long term viability with the franchise. He was subject to self-inflicted trade rumors last offseason and to no surprise he is back in the rumor mill this year. Unless Andrew Berry is offered trades that provide more value than what Njoku brings as a TE2, then he should remain with the team next season.

Heading into year two of the Stefanski regime the tight end position group still has much to prove. There should not be much change in the scheme where 12 personnel is not the most utilized set. Austin Hooper’s chemistry should improve with Baker Mayfield with another offseason of workouts for the two. Hopefully with improved chemistry Hooper will be able to get closer to his production similar to his final two years in Atlanta. On the other hand Harrison Bryant should benefit the most from a traditional offseason program while learning from mistakes in his rookie season. Also, there should still be a training camp competition for the TE2 spot if David Njoku is on the roster which in turn will bring out the best in Bryant.

Lastly, David Njoku is the biggest question mark as his future with the team is very dependent on the front offices evaluation of him. If his contributions thus far and their vision for him in the scheme don’t excite the front office he may be moved this offseason. Berry may trade Njoku looking for some sort of return instead of allowing Njoku to walk freely in free agency. Behind Njoku remains Stephen Carlson who is primarily a special teams player who only has 6 receptions in his career. Overall the tight end room should not change much heading into next year but David Njoku will be the name to watch this offseason.