Cleveland GM Andrew Berry has shown he is not timid in stacking free agent signings along with draft picks.
Last year, he signed middle linebacker B.J. Goodson on the very first day of free agency, then drafted ILB Jacob Phillips in the third-round. Within two weeks of each other, he inked free agent safeties Andrew Sendejo and Karl Joseph and then spent a second-round pick on free safety Grant Delpit.
Which brings us to the tight end position.
When Berry was hired on January 27,2020, the tight ends he inherited included Demetrius Harris, Stephen Carlson, Pharaoh Brown and David Njoku. This unit was under-utilized and had minimal production with the exception of mostly excellent blockers. Three of these players had gone undrafted in their respective years: Harris (2013), Brown (2017) and Carlson (2019).
The opposite was the case with Njoku. The 6’-4”, 246 pound offensive weapon had been taken in the first-round of the 2017 NFL draft out of Miami. The Nigerian descendant, one of nine children growing up, was the third Number 1 draft pick the Browns had that year. After taking DE Myles Garrett number one overall, safety Jabrill Peppers was selected at Number 25 before Njoku’s name was called four slots later.
Njoku was the third tight end taken in that first-round after Tampa Bay chose O.J. Howard and Evan Engram was picked by the New York Football Giants. The next pick after Cleveland chose Njoku was the excellent EDGE rusher and three-time Pro Bowler T.J. Watt from division rival Pittsburgh Steelers.
Njoku has had a sketchy career so far with the Browns despite being a first-round draft pick. Normally, players taken in the first-round are expected to start at their respective position their rookie season or sometime during training camp going into their second year.
That just never happened with Njoku.
The Browns did not win a single game in Njoku’s rookie season under then-head coach Hue Jackson. Randall Telfer was the starting tight end and rookie DeShone Kizer was installed at quarterback, but Njoku played in all 16 games and ended his maiden campaign with 32 receptions for 386 yards, 60 targets and scored four touchdowns.
The following season Njoku won the starting position over Darren Fells in training camp. By Week 3, first overall draft pick Baker Mayfield was the new signalcaller. Njoku would go on to have his best season as a pro with 56 catches for 639 yards, was targeted 88 times, netted four touchdowns, and held an 11.4 yards per catch average.
While his numbers appeared promising and he proved to be a marvelous receiving threat, he was considered the worst blocking tight end on the roster two years in a row.
Harris, Brown and Carlson were all brought into the fold in 2019. Njoku began the season as the starter, but in Week 2 in a 23-33 road win over the New York Jets, he lined up in the leftside receiver position midway through the first quarter and then went on a simple crossing pattern. Mayfield was flushed from the pocket, and then spotted Njoku but had to throw the ball a bit high in order to clear the underneath linebacker.
Njoku got enough air to snag the high ball, caught the pass, but just before the ball arrived, his left thigh was slammed by the helmet of Jets’ cornerback Nate Hairston. While Njoku cradled the football in his left hand, he began his quick descent. After his right hand braced the ground, the next body part to make contact with the turf was his head/neck/left shoulder all in one horrific thud.
The abrupt fall had performed three acts: the ball popped out as an incomplete pass, he had demonstrated a perfect scorpion, and he suffered a concussion. Njoku’s right hand action of bracing his fall later revealed that he also suffered a broken wrist.
The Browns placed him on IR return, and was activated in early mid-November but wasn’t a gameday active member until early December. Basically, the entire season was a wash with just four games played, five receptions for 41 yards and a single score.
Going into the 2020 season, then-GM John Dorsey was fired and Berry was the new guy in charge. Berry knew that newly-hired head coach Kevin Stefanski used multiple tight ends in his offense. Within two weeks, both Harris and Brown were gone. On the first day of free agency, Berry signed two-time Pro Bowl tight end Austin Hooper to a huge four-year deal worth $44 million.
Berry didn’t draft David Njoku – he inherited him. And with the Hooper (6’-4”, 254 pounds) signing, the message was loud and clear that the Browns were in a position to move from his services.
Njoku asked for a trade feeling the writing was on the wall. But then, he tabled that request when he discovered Stefanski’s offense was not only tight end friendly, but tight end dependent.
His salary for the upcoming fourth season would be $2.98 million with the fifth-year option right behind if Cleveland opted for it.
So, going into 2020 Hooper was now the starting tight end. Njoku had to fight for snaps with rookie Harrison Bryant (6’-5”, 243 pounds), the Mackey Award winner. Carlson (6’-4”, 240 pounds) was still around and found his playing time making tackles on special teams.
But something odd happened. The Browns had hired Bill Callahan as their offensive line coach. Callahan is known for being the league’s premier O-Line coach. Njoku was tutored and learned the art of blocking. And he become pretty good at it.
In the opening game of 2020 against the Baltimore Ravens, Hooper and Njoku were the starters. Njoku responded with three catches for 50 yards and a touchdown – the Browns only points in a blowout loss. Despite a very lackluster offensive showing by the Browns, Njoku was the lone bright spot and caught all three of his targets.
However, in the loss, Njoku suffered a knee injury after only playing 17 snaps. The result was a sprained MCL which placed him once again on the IR return list. By mid-October, he was again activated and ready to suit up on gamedays. At the time, Cleveland was then the Number 1 rushing club in the league.
Stefanski said this about Njoku’s return:
“David brings his own skill set to the group. I think all of them are a little bit different, but David with his size and his ability to be in line and split out, we are excited to get him back out there.”
The problem at this point was that Bryant had worked himself into the Number 2 tight end slot and had been getting all of Njoku’s snaps in his absence. Mayfield had developed a good relationship with the rookie while Hooper was entrenched as the undisputed starter.
Njoku knew coming into this season that he needed to prove something to management with this being his fourth NFL season. What ensued upon his return was that when he did get snaps, it was mainly as a blocker at the line or downfield as a receiver.
And that – he was very good at.
Hooper only produced a marginal year while Bryant had issues with drops. Perhaps NFL quarterbacks throw the ball with a lot more velocity than their college counterparts. Regardless, since being activated Njoku only received a total of 26 targets, made 16 receptions for 163 yards with one touchdown.
Two high-priced players
Despite a below-average year, the Browns exercised Njoku’s fifth-year option. This meant that he would not be eligible for free agency and Cleveland still owned his rights.
It also meant the Browns would now have to pay him $6.013 million for his final year. Hooper would be in his second year with the club and his salary increased to $8.25 million. Suddenly, the Browns have two players in the tight end room making over $14 million. Nobody in the league has that much invested in their tight ends.
Berry has placed his stamp on the Browns roster, and right out of the gate in his first day of free agency he signed Hooper to that mega-deal. Hooper is his guy. He drafted Harrison.
Right now, Njoku has trade worth. Even if it is just a third, fourth or fifth-round picks, there is value with him.
Here is a guy that apparently is unhappy, has low production numbers, is getting paid to be the starter yet has started only six games in the past two seasons, isn’t getting any targets and has asked to be traded.
That makes Njoku replaceable. Perhaps a new home is just what he needs to rejuvenate his career.
Possible trade partners
And what’s really odd in regards to this player, is that Njoku is still a very young man at age 24. He runs a 4.64 in the 40 so the speed factor remains in his wheelhouse. His vertical jump is 40 inches and he has 10” hands with an arm length of a very wide 35 1/4”. Plus, he is in tip-top shape with a sculptured physique.
Njoku has always shown he is a talented receiver, and after last season with his improved blocking, if there was an award for Most Improved Player, it would go to David Njoku. He is still a gifted athlete. Njoku shined against the Kansas City Chiefs in Cleveland’s playoff loss.
But the bottom line is that the Browns have two high-priced tight ends. It just doesn’t seem logical that Berry will retain them both. What makes more sense is for Berry to trade one and then develop Bryant as TE2 for the future.
Two teams stand out as a possible trade partner: the Dallas Cowboys and the Arizona Cardinals; both of which are out of the conference which is always preferred.
The Cardinals starting tight end last year was Maxx Williams (6’-4”, 252 pounds), who was taken the second-round of the 2015 NFL draft by the Ravens and a Mackey Award finalist in his sophomore year while at Minnesota. Oddly enough, the Ravens traded up in the second-round with Arizona in order to snag Williams.
Williams has been plagued in his career with multiple injuries: concussion, knee injury, knee cartilage surgery, ankle injury, and another ankle injury. After four seasons with Baltimore, his numbers were mediocre with 63 receptions, 497 yards, three touchdowns and a paltry 7.9 yards per reception. The Ravens then allowed him to move on.
He signed with Arizona and was named their starting tight end. Last year, he re-injured his problem ankle which landed him once again on IR. In the nine games he played, he only had eight catches for 102 yards and one score. Williams is known as a great run blocker but lacks offensive fireworks. The Cardinals did sport a receiving TE named Dan Arnold, but he signed with the Carolina Panthers in free agency.
The Arizona offense should be really good this year. An offensive threat like Njoku could be just the catalyst their offense craves.
“The Cardinals are in need of a pass catching tight end. This is not a particularly deep draft at the TE position, which is why I think the Cardinals could be very interested in acquiring David Njoku via a trade,” said Walter Mitchell, deputy editor for RevengeOfTheBirds.com, a Cardinals community site on SB Nation. “Njoku would fill a need and it would be an auspicious trade if he and Kyler Murray could develop good chemistry.”
But could Arizona take on Njoku’s big salary on his fifth-year option?
“Currently the Cardinals have enough cap space to accommodate Njoku’s fifth-year tender of $6 million,” surmised Mitchell. “In addition, the trade for Njoku could soften the blow for the Cardinals at their “Y” receiver position if Larry Fitzgerald retires or signs with another team.”
The Cowboys have always featured a very good receiving tight end throughout their franchise history. However, they haven’t had a viable receiving threat since Jason Witten’s heyday as their starter.
Currently, their starter is Dalton Schultz who was drafted in the fourth-round of the 2018 NFL draft. But he has yet to put together a full season and has not started a full year.
Njoku could slide right into that explosive Cowboys offense and just might be their missing link.
But what could the Browns get for Njoku? Would they move him prior to the draft, or become a draft day trade?
In 2019, the Browns traded former third-round pick Duke Johnson to the Houston Texans for a conditional fourth-rounder. If Johnson was active for 10 regular season games, that fourth would become a third-round pick instead – which later happened.
Even though Johnson was taken in a later round, given the circumstances of Njoku’s mediocre numbers this past year, a similar scenario might be in store.
Dallas picks at Number 115 in the fourth-round this year.
For the Cardinals, they don’t own a fourth-round pick in 2021 which would have been the Number 122 slot now owned by the New England Patriots. Arizona does have a fifth-round pick at Number 160 though. If the Cards added a sixth-round pick the following year, or maybe even make it a future fifth-rounder, that would make sense for Cleveland.
Receiving future picks would be the best method. This year, barring any trades, the Browns own nine draft picks. With their current roster full of great players with few holes, it is doubtful that nine new players will fit. Having the ability to store picks for next year makes the most sense.
And for the Cardinals or the Cowboys, they would finally get a talented receiving tight end who now knows how to block.
Put on your GM hat. Would you trade David Njoku for more picks on draft day?
Yes – good idea
No – keep him and let him play out his contract
0 votes total