David Njoku: A Five-Year Saga from Bust to Extension

David Njoku: A Five-Year Saga from Bust to Extension

by May 29, 2022 0 comments

The Cleveland Browns have had some great tight ends in their history (Ozzie Newsome), some one-hit wonders (Gary Barnidge and Jordan Cameron), and some that would qualify as busts (Kellen Winslow). When the team drafted David Njoku after trading back into the first round for the team’s third selection in 2017, the former Miami Hurricane could have ended up as any three, and he still can.

Much of Njoku’s football career has been about potential, not necessarily performance, and that’s what has some Browns fans nervous. He was a three-star wide receiver recruit who converted to tight end in college at Miami. Despite his low ranking, he had a lot of upside because of his 6’4″ 220-pound build and athleticism. After taking a transition redshirt year, he played the position for two years before turning pro. Nonetheless, after a decent season in 2015, Njoku turned in a strong year in 2016 as a big-play tight end. That, along with his combine performance, had him graded as a first-round prospect.

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Drafted as a Raw Product (2017-2018)

Njoku played all 16 games in his rookie year, recording five starts. He finished the season with 32 catches on 60 targets for 386 yards and four touchdowns in Hue Jackson’s offense. On the season, he was behind other top prospects, Evan Engram and O.J. Howard, but the Browns could be patient. The process appeared to be paying off in 2018 when Njoku looked to be cementing his place in the offense as a reliable target for then-rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield. In his sophomore season, Njoku increased his catch percentage by 10 points. He hauled in 56 of 88 targets for 639 yards and four touchdowns.

Falling Out of Favor (2019)

As with so many of the expectations for the Browns entering the 2019 season under Freddie Kitchens, big things were anticipated from Njoku. However, like the rest of the team, performance fell well short of expectations. The third-year tight end appeared in just four games, spending 12 weeks on injured reserve with a broken wrist. After returning to the field, he recorded two additional “inactive” designations at the behest of Kitchens. Njoku, frustrated, finished the season with just 10 targets. From there his relationship with the team became rocky. Cleveland.com quoted him saying, “I don’t want to answer that yet. I’m not sure, so no comment’’ when asked whether he’d return to play under Kitchens or not in 2020.

The Kitchens situation handled itself when the coach was fired on the day after the aforementioned article was published. Two weeks later, Cleveland hired Kevin Stefanski to be the new head coach. This was an offensive-minded coach hire who was a former tight ends coach with the Minnesota Vikings coming into the organization. A branch off of the Bill Walsh coaching tree by way of Brad Childress with influence from the Gary Kubiak and Mike Shanahan coaching legacy as well, Stefanski’s offense utilized the tight end position. That should have smoothed things over, as Njoku should have had no problem fitting in.

Trade Requests (2020-2021)

However, the team added free agent Austin Hooper with the richest tight end contract at the time and then drafted Harrison Bryant, the 2019 Mackey Award winner, in the fourth round of the 2020 NFL Draft. Seeing a now crowded position room, Njoku saw his already diminished targets taking an even greater hit and requested a trade from the team on July 3. The team, having already exercised Njoku’s fifth-year option, had no plan in moving him. “Obviously, he was not on the field much last year,” general manager Andrew Berry said before the draft, “but he is a guy with outstanding physical tools, he has proven NFL production and we still think the future is very bright with him here.”

Njoku had a mediocre season in 2020, seeing his usage increase ever so slightly from the year before. Still, his role was nothing like it was under Jackson. He remained in potential trade talk up to the deadline that season, and into the 2021 offseason. Instead, he returned to the team, reclaiming his primary starting role from 2018. Not only did Njoku out-performing Bryant, but Hooper as well, turning into one of the most reliable targets in the offense.

Potential Goes Only So Far

Njoku has now cashed in on his upside potential, signing a four-year $56.75 million contract extension. This, of course, comes after being franchise-tagged this spring. The move makes him the fifth-highest paid at the position entering the 2022 season, not far behind the likes of George Kittle and Travis Kelce. That’s a hefty commitment, bolstered by the team’s decision to release Hooper in March. Through his first five seasons, his up-and-down play has seen him bounce from trending project to roster cut candidate. Sure, the team’s turnover likely played a major role. Now, in his third season under Stefanski, that’s no longer an excuse. Yes, there’s been a quarterback change, but the move from Mayfield to Deshaun Watson is a major upgrade.

Jimmy Haslam and the team have made major, controversial investments recently to make a legitimate title push right now. Njoku is just the latest one. There’s no more time to wait when the stakes are this high. With everything now working in his favor, it is time for him to fully realize his potential as a top tight end.


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