Since he was drafted at age 20 in the 2017 NFL Draft, the Cleveland Browns have been waiting for David Njoku to fully realize his potential in the NFL and the opener against the Kansas City Chiefs is yet the latest flash of just how good he can be.
Njoku was the only receiving threat on the Browns that looked special in that game. He only caught three passes, but they were all impact plays. Two of his receptions were explosive plays including a 43 yard reception on a corner route where Baker Mayfield delivered a picture perfect pass over his shoulder.
The Browns only had two other explosive plays in the passing game, including a deep ball to Anthony Schwartz and the last play of the first half.
Njoku actually had opportunities for two more big plays, but he and Mayfield could not connect. On the first, Njoku was on the right sideline and ran deep on a scramble drill when Mayfield rolled to his side. Mayfield got caught throwing a middling pass that went over Njoku's head. More of a rope and it potentially draws a defensive pass interference if it's not caught. More air and Njoku might settle under it to make the catch.
The second was late in the fourth quarter. Another scramble drill, this time to the left. Njoku was already deep and worked back towards Mayfield, but the throw was short.
Beyond the receptions Njoku made, his biggest contribution was spacing, a theme throughout the game on offense. Both Njoku and rookie Anthony Schwartz were utilized consistently throughout the game to improve the spacing for the rest of the offense, which was a consistent issue throughout the 2020 season.
Njoku and Schwartz forced opponents to respect the Browns potential to go down the field, which opened up underneath passing opportunities to the likes of Jarvis Landry, who caught three first downs. A slant, a orbit motion flare and then a spot where Landry was able to settle down in space in the middle of the field.
Where as last year, defenses including the Chiefs were consistently suffocating the Browns offense playing near the line of scrimmage, forcing Mayfield to make pinpoint throws through a maze of defenders, he now had room to breathe. Naturally, it looked much easier for Mayfield to pick apart the defense with so much more ground to cover.
A 250 pound vertical threat who can block is a problem for defenses. The Chiefs have one of those and it's the best tight end in the league in Travis Kelce. No, Njoku is not Kelce, but they had similar impacts for their respective offenses. Coincidentally, they both finished with 76 receiving yards for the game.
Njoku doesn't have to be Kelce to consistently make impact for this offense, because opposing defenses have to figure out how to cover him down the field, which creates opportunities elsewhere. In this particular case, the Browns receivers were largely average and yet they were able to make contributions as Mayfield was playing with the level of confidence he had during his Heisman winning season at Oklahoma.
With Odell Beckham still left to be added into the mix, the Browns have significantly more upside to their passing attack, giving them what could be an eerily similar dynamic as the one Patrick Mahomes has in Kansas City.
In the meantime, if Njoku can stay healthy and keep this level of play up, he can become one of the most dangerous tight ends in football.