Coming into the 2019 season, David Njoku was a third year tight end coming off a productive season with the hopes of taking another step closer to realizing his remarkable potential. Along with players like Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry and Nick Chubb, the Cleveland Browns were poised to have an explosive offense quarterbacked by Baker Mayfield. From top ten in receiving yards among tight ends in 2018, Njoku's 2019 season was marred by a wrist injury that sidelined him for much of the season and even though he is healthy now, he's inactive on game days with his future as a Brown a question mark.
Njoku's bizarre year actually began at the NFL Scouting Combine, when an unprompted John Dorsey criticized his blocking. It was bizarre at the time, but given the current situation, it may have been a preview of things to come.
The injury Njoku suffered, breaking the scaphoid in his wrist was largely caused by a late throw from Baker Mayfield against the New York Jets. It put him in a position to get drilled by multiple defenders, leading to the injury.
This is where Njoku may not have helped his own cause. Njoku was presented with two options with how to deal with the injury; rest or surgery. Surgery was a faster process but Njoku was going to be out a minimum of eight weeks regardless of his choice due to being placed on injured reserve. That's the minimum amount of time a player has to be on IR before a team can designate them to return, which seemed to be the plan as soon as Njoku hit the ground.
The problem for Njoku was he initially chose rest and did that for four weeks before then opting to have the surgery, resulting in a longer recovery. Njoku believed he was ready to come back as soon as the team designated him to return, while the team didn't, waiting two more weeks before officially activating him. In fairness to Njoku, it's impossible to know what conversations went on between he and his doctors. Maybe they told him to rest it before having surgery or after four weeks of rest, the injury wasn't healing the way they had hoped. Nevertheless, there is a belief that his resistance to get the surgery right away resulted in a longer recovery, keeping him out an extra few weeks.
This might have created a rift between Njoku and the organization or widened one that was already there. Since being activated, Njoku has reportedly been bad in practice in the periods open to the media according to Daryl Ruiter of 92.3 The Fan. Ruiter has said he's been dropping passes and getting assignments wrong. That reporting was supported by Njoku getting on the field against the Cincinnati Bengals, only to seemingly run the wrong route and have a pass stripped away from him by a defender as they went to the ground, resulting in an interception. That play also led to a heated exchange between head coach Freddie Kitchens and Njoku on the sideline.
Since then, he hasn't been active on game day. The current coaching staff seems to be unsatisfied with Njoku to put it kindly. And it will be interesting to see if Njoku is active for the final game of the regular season against the Bengals. Maybe it's just a disaster of a season for Njoku. He's had issues with dropping passes in previous seasons, but he was a developing part of the offense, both as a pass catcher and blocker.
And if the issue is with this coaching staff, it may not matter in about a week when it seems likely Kitchens will be relieved of the position. A new head coach and coaching staff may be excited to work with Njoku and hopefully he won't have the injury situation in 2020. But considering the criticism of Dorsey from before the season, it's natural to wonder if he's ready to move on from Njoku through a trade in the offseason.
Njoku will be on the fourth year of his rookie contract, making a hair over $3 million in 2020. That's an incredibly sweet deal, especially for a team like the Browns where cap room is increasingly running low. The issue with Njoku is the fifth year option, which will be far more expensive. For Dorsey, if he were inclined to trade him, moving him this coming offseason might be the way to get the most value for him. If teams believe 2018 Njoku is far closer to reality and they believe in his upside as he's still just 23 years old, there could be a number of teams that would love to get him for a low contract this year and pick up his option for next year.
This is exactly what the Browns did when they acquired Damarious Randall from the Green Bay Packers. The Packers also didn't get much for Randall, only receiving quarterback DeShone Kizer, who the team has since released. If the potential return for Njoku is that low, they would be far better off keeping him and hoping they can get him right. The talent and athleticism is undeniable. And he would be just one of any number of players on this team that didn't perform up to expectations in 2019. They could single him out and move him, but they might regret it if he goes out and plays well for another team next season, especially when the Browns would be far worse off at the tight end position.
Mayfield has always loved throwing to tight ends, dating back to his time at Oklahoma. Njoku was a huge threat in the red zone last season and one the Browns have missed this year. That hasn't stopped Mayfield from throwing to tight ends, but Demetrius Harris and Ricky Seals-Jones simply can't do what Njoku can. Unless the Browns plan to prioritize tight end in the offseason, it would be a disservice to Mayfield in addition to creating yet another hole on the team. If anything, the Browns should be more inclined to keep Njoku and look to keep improving the position beyond him. The combination of Njoku, Harris and Seals-Jones, maybe Stephen Carlson could be a very productive group. If they can find ways to improve it, all the better.
Like so much of the 2019 season, David Njoku's third year has been a disaster. There's a lot that came down to dumb luck, but he probably hasn't helped himself at points. It remains to be seen how the Browns approach the situation, but it would be disappointing to see them give up on a young, talented player like Njoku to create another hole to address with limited resources.