A key focus in the offseason for the Cleveland Browns offense was to get faster and be able to offer more vertical threats, which paid immediate dividends in the first game of the season against the Kansas City Chiefs.
It’s dangerous to take too much away from one game in the NFL season, but there are still conclusions that can be drawn from the Browns Week 1 loss to the Chiefs. One of the most important is that the team’s lack of spacing, which cost them a win against KC in last year’s playoffs, looks to be much improved, even without Odell Beckham Jr. on the field.
Tight end David Njoku started out his season with a bang, catching three of his five targets for 76 yards. He also got open on a first-quarter scramble drill and put himself in position for a touchdown had Baker Mayfield given him a chance. Njoku has always possessed elite physical traits, but his play over the back half of 2020 and then on Sunday indicates that he’s finally beginning to figure things out at the NFL level, and that’s not a surprise; he only just turned 25 years old and TE is a position that takes years for rookies to adjust to.
Njoku’s usage in 2020 was uneven, but last week he played 35 offensive snaps, three fewer than Austin Hooper, and ran 15 routes, which led Browns TEs. His blocking was great, as usual, but his impact in the passing game was even better. One of his catches was a three-yard hot read, and on his other four targets, he averaged 25 yards per target, which is a ridiculous number, especially for a TE. He was consistently winning downfield and drawing attention, and lined up for four snaps out wide and eight in the slot.
His 83.9 Pro Football Focus overall grade was tied for fourth among all TE’s in Week 1, as was his 88.4 receiving grade. To be fair, Hooper looked faster on Sunday than he did all of last season, but Njoku is clearly the best all-around TE on the team, and it’s no contest that he’s the most explosive and threatening. As the Browns continue to use a high amount of 12 and 13-personnel looks, Njoku should continue to be a major part of the offense, and should continue to dominate.
Njoku was joined downfield by rookie Anthony Schwartz, who played more (and better) than most anticipated in his first NFL game. The 21-year-old was extremely raw coming out of Auburn, and missed much of training camp to injury, but still made a massive impact against the Chiefs, starting with a 44-yard catch off play action early in the game. That play should have been a touchdown, but Schwartz’s ball tracking needs work. To be fair, he was rarely hit in stride at Auburn, so having a ball placed as accurately as Mayfield’s pass was probably a surprise for him.
Schwartz hauled in three of his five targets for 69 yards and also took a reverse for 17 yards. He put up an excellent 24.4 ADOT and nearly made a fantastic adjustment on a slightly off-target pass late in the game, but it was broken up on a great defensive play by KC safety Juan Thornhill, who also forced a fumble on Nick Chubb earlier. Schwartz’s 82.2 offensive grade placed him first among all rookie targets and ninth overall in the league, a great start to his Browns career.
Schwartz tied Njoku and Jarvis Landry for the team lead with five targets, and played a total of 31 offensive snaps. He still has miles to go in order to reach his ceiling, but it’s clear that his superior trait (speed) will keep him on the field quite often as a rookie. That isn’t likely to change once Beckham returns; an 11-personnel lineup featuring Beckham, Njoku, Donovan Peoples-Jones, and Schwartz is crazy explosive and would seriously threaten any secondary in the NFL.
Mayfield’s average depth of target on Sunday was 10.1 yards, 1.3 yards higher than his average over the 2020 season. Njoku and Schwartz were entirely responsible for that improvement, as no one else had an ADOT above 6.0, Landry averaging just 3.0 yards on his five targets, and Hooper only 3.8 on his three.
The Cleveland offense is responsible for coming up short last week, but this time it was thanks to turnovers and poor execution, not a complete lack of vertical ability. Mayfield is at his best when throwing deep, and now he has the players to throw deep to. 2021 is going to be by far the best season of his NFL career, and the play and presence of Njoku and Schwartz will be a main reason why.