The Browns Options With David Njoku Across The Next 12 Months?

The Browns are in a very fortunate position of strength when it comes to their tight end room. At the same time, they have some difficult decisions that they need to make across the 2021 & 2022 offseason on how it will look moving forward.

We will look at two important questions about the usage of tight ends in Stefanski’s scheme and then into their production before breaking down the five different options the Browns face with Njoku.

How Many Tight Ends Do The Browns Use?

This is an important question to ask because it allows us to see how often tight ends one the field. If we look back to the snaps on Sharp Football Stats in 2020 for the Browns we can see:
0TE – 0.4%
1TE – 50.6%
2TE – 34.2%
3TE – 14.6%
4TE – 0.2%

This means we have this number of tight end on the field at one time:
1+ TE – 99.4%
2+ TE – 49.0% (2nd most in the NFL behind TEN)
3+ TE – 14.8% (most in the NFL)

While there will be the rotation and it is not clearly divided as tight end one plays 99.4% of snaps we can clearly see there is one player who is going to be the de facto starter. Then you have someone who is a rotational player and looking at around 50% of snaps with a player coming in for 25% if everyone is healthy.

How Do The Stats Look For Browns Tight Ends?

I wrote about this last offseason, despite high usage of tight ends in Stefanski’s system it isn’t actually very friendly to them in the stats column. While this isn’t a priority to the team, players coming into a contract year want to be in a system that elevates and shows off their talent, allowing them to secure a life-changing amount of money for their families for generations to come.

Here are the Browns’ tight ends regular season stats. I know Njoku had a bounce in the playoffs but teams will compare regular season stats when looking at players across the NFL.

TargetsReceptionsYardsTDs
Hooper65 (16th)46 (16th)435 (22nd)4 (16th)
Bryant37 (37th)24 (40th)238 (44th)3 (22nd)
Njoku29 (44th)19 (48th)213 (46th)2 (35th)
Carlson1 (109th)1 (100th)11 (104th)0 (79th)
Data from PFF

From this table, we can see that your tight end one gets a middle-of-the-road opportunity share, followed by two tight ends that get an above-average tight end two opportunity. They aren’t getting the chance to shine and earn a fantastic payday in free agency.

Browns Won’t Pay Two Tight Ends

From what we have seen above with the usage being just under 50% and the production not being massive in the Stefanski system for tight end two, it is unlikely the will want two highly paid tight ends long term. This means they are likely to be looking at only keeping one player on a large veteran deal long term. If they decide to keep Hooper & Njoku for 2021, expect it to be the final year with one tight end on over $10m a year and another on over $5m a year. Where you can only really have one of these two players, it doesn’t really matter how young Njoku is to the Browns as you need him to show the talent in the next 12 months to justify a decision being their tight end one long term.

Let us now look at the options on the table for what the Browns can do with Njoku in the next 12 months.

Option 1 – Keep Njoku For 2021, Then Hit Free Agency

Njoku currently has one year left on his contract at $6m for his fifth-year option. While he might only play around 50% of snaps in the role as tight end two he is incredibly talented and the upside is huge. Where tight ends are an important part of Stefanski’s scheme it is crucial to have quality depth on the roster as you never know when an injury might strike. If the Browns aren’t active in the 2022 free agency then they could likely get a 5th/6th (likely 6th) round compensation pick in return.

Option 2 – Keep Njoku For 2021, Extend Him & Cut/Trade Hooper

If Njoku shines in 2021 then the Browns might make the decision to extend Njoku and move on from Hooper. As addressed above it is highly unlikely they keep both due to the cost so this wouldn’t be decided until after the season has finished so there is no need to rush the Njoku or Hooper debate this offseason. Hooper’s deal has an out after this season but where the signing/option bonus is heavily backloaded there would still be an $11.25m dead cap charge, balancing out the really cheap first two years of the deal. The new team would take on a deal that costs $9.5m in 2022 & 2023 with no guarantees remaining in a trade.

Option 3 – Trade Njoku in 2021 & Sign A One/Two Year Veteran

When looking at moving on from Njoku you aren’t cutting him, you’re asking the question of what can you get for him as well as replacing his production in free agency/the draft. NFL trades are one of the hardest things to predict but two players I would guess that are realistic and are in the final year of their deals are Dallas’ Michael Gallup and New England’s Stephon Gilmore. It makes sense to move on from a final year player you don’t want to keep long term due to your roster and replace him with another final year player who could have a long-term home. You would need to add picks to get these deals done but from what we have seen with this front office, everything is on the table when trying to make this team better overall. Sometimes moving on from one player and adding two more improves your team overall.

In terms of the player, you would bring in to replace him, the obvious name that comes to mind first is Kyle Rudolph who has a history with Stefanski from the Vikings. After that, you could look to Jared Cook from the Saints, the Titans’ Anthony Firkser, and Colts’ Trey Burton.

Option 4 – Trade Njoku in 2021 & Sign A Big Name Tight End

If the Browns aren’t fully sold on Hooper then they could go after one of the two big names in free agency, Hunter Henry from the Chargers and Jonnu Smith from the Titans. This would mean they would need to move on from Njoku this offseason to free up space in the room. In a year’s time, it would likely mean they are cutting/trading Hooper because you can’t have two tight ends long term both earning $12m+ a year. This would be a bold, outside-the-box move so I consider it the most unlikely of the five options.

Option 5 – Trade Njoku in 2021 Because They Love Bryant

There was an injury but across the season we saw more opportunities for Harrison Bryant than Njoku. This is despite the tight end being a position where you expect very little out of them in the first year. The coaching staff and front office could be in love with Bryant and happy to move on from Njoku. This would mean pushing him up the depth chart and adding a new tight end three.

If they want to go slightly riskier in free agency then Richard Rodgers from the Eagles would be an interesting one, he was PFF’s TE2 last offseason. He only played 274 snaps after playing in 53 the two seasons before that. He could be exactly the sort of low-risk, high-reward move teams look for in free agency.

They could wait to trade away Njoku either during the draft or later in the offseason. This would allow them to get their replacement in the draft first to keep a conveyor belt of talent coming through the position room.

Conclusion

I have been a massive fan of Njoku since he entered the league but unfortunately, the flashes of incredible talent haven’t been consistent enough. Especially for a team who leads the league in three tight end usage to commit to him as their tight end one. Injuries are a massive concern with Njoku, catching only 19 passes last season is something hard to fall in love with.

If I had to guess what approach the front office takes it would be to wait the year out and see what happens across the season before deciding who to keep between Hooper and Njoku. If he can get over the injury bug and consistently deliver that elite athleticism then he can be a top tight end in the league.

The front office will always do everything they can to add as much talent as possible so they will be looking at what they can get for Njoku on the market. If it is more than the 6th round compensation pics they likely get in a year’s time then they could be tempted to move him this offseason.

Don’t sleep on how much the team seems to like Bryant, they could easily make the move if I was in their shoes and if he can be part of a trade for Gallup then I do it in a heartbeat. Add Rodgers in free agency and add a tight end on day three if they have someone they like.

Any questions, feel free to hit me up on Twitter @JackDuffin. The DMs are open for any salary cap/roster construction questions you have.

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