Browns Lose Highest Graded Skill Player to Injury

Shawn Stevenson

What is the worst thing that could happen to an offense that only scored six points in the season opener? Losing the player that scored their only touchdown to injured reserve. Cleveland Browns TE David Njoku was placed on IR with a knee injury after the season opening loss to the Baltimore Ravens. Njoku is expected to miss three weeks with a sprained MCL as first reported by ESPN’s Adam Schefter.

This is a blow to a struggling Browns offense that could never seem to get out of its own way. Playing only 17 snaps, Njoku made his presence felt catching all three of his targets for fifty yards and the Browns only touchdown. Njoku was the highest rated TE in week one according to Pro Football Focus with a grade of 92.3 He also had the offenses second longest play of the game with a 28-yd jump ball, with two minutes left in the second quarter. That same catch put the offense in Ravens territory before things took a turn for the worse.

A few plays later in the drive Odell Beckham dropped a pass on 3rd & 2 after the pass hit him directly in the hands. The unfortunate drop was quickly followed up by a missed field goal wide right by waived kicker Austin Seibert. David Njoku was the spark in the receiving game the Browns offense desperately needed and now someone else has to step up. Pressure will be quickly mounting on GM Andrew Berry’s big free agent signing Austin Hooper.

During Sunday’s huge loss, Austin Hooper played 56 snaps (77%) and only registered two receptions for 15 yards. Production expectations are a lot higher than fifteen yards for a tight end that was given a four-year $44 million contract. Hooper’s performance can’t be equated to lack of chemistry because he was only targeted twice the entire game. An area of Hooper’s game which must be analyzed is how Hooper’s production is created and his playstyle.

Hooper and Njoku are two different types of players due to their playstyle. David Njoku is a very athletic move tight end that excels at high pointing catches and utilizing his outstanding leaping ability. Austin Hooper on the other hand is closer to a traditional inline possession tight end; a player for comparison sake is TE Jason Witten. Hooper isn’t going to wow anyone with his athleticism but he takes advantage of what the defense gives him. Since 2016, over 75% of Hooper’s production has come against zone or underneath the coverage.

In order to make the big offseason contract worth it, Hooper must become a security blanket for Baker Mayfield. Understanding that Hooper makes his living finding the soft spot of the defense, he should be making consistent plays to keep drives alive and the chains moving. The expectation may not be for Hooper to dominate the seams like Ravens TE Mark Andrews but if he can excel in his role underneath then his contribution will help this offense.

There is obvious pressure on Austin Hooper due to his contract alone, but now rookie Harrison Bryant has to perform with Njoku on short term IR. Bryant a fourth round draft pick was higher on the depth chart and played 31 snaps (42%) on offense. His production was nothing to write home about either catching one of his two targets for five yards. Now the expectations for Bryant are different given the learning curve for young tight ends in the NFL and that they typically struggle early on. Yet on the same token the coaching staff believes in his ability starting his as the TE2 for a team running plenty of 12 personnel.

On Sunday, Stefanksi ran 12 personnel on 38% of the offensive snaps and saw some success with extra tight ends on the field. Bryant will see his fair share of snaps and he must produce when the opportunities arise. He definitely has the ability to be a difference maker on gameday after earning the Maurice Bassett award for training camps best performing rookie. He also won the John Mackey award as the top TE in the nation in college last year, posting a 92.7 receiving grade according to PFF.

Bryant offers a different playstyle than Hooper being more of an H-Back than a traditional inline TE. He’s not exactly a move TE like David Njoku, but he can attack the seam and also line up in the slot versus smaller DBs or slower LBs. Bryant has the chance to prove his worth with Njoku on IR and seemingly more opportunities on offense.

In Njoku’s absence Stephen Carlson will move up the depth chart after seeing twelve snaps in week one. Carlson is the rosters blocking tight end and will help seal the edge for the outside zone. This could also increase Stefanski’s usage of 22 personnel (2 RBs and 2 TEs) to support the run game. In return this would bring Andy Janovich on the field more, whom only played nine snaps. No matter the direction Stefanksi choose to go with his personnel packages the offense must improve. All offseason fans and the media have discussed the talent on the offense but they need to produce and prove they are not the same old Browns of yester year. 

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