Where are Cleveland Browns David Njoku and Rashard Higgins?

BALTIMORE, MD - SEPTEMBER 17: Tight end David Njoku #85 of the Cleveland Browns celebrates his touchdown against the Baltimore Ravens in the second quarter at M&T Bank Stadium on September 17, 2017 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Rob Carr /Getty Images)
BALTIMORE, MD - SEPTEMBER 17: Tight end David Njoku #85 of the Cleveland Browns celebrates his touchdown against the Baltimore Ravens in the second quarter at M&T Bank Stadium on September 17, 2017 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Rob Carr /Getty Images) /

The Cleveland Browns offense has continued to struggle, but they refuse to acknowledge the obvious absences of David Njoku and Rashard Higgins from the offense.

Put out an all-points bulletin for David Njoku and Rashard Higgins, because we have not seen them at their workplace, FirstEnergy Stadium, for the Cleveland Browns in weeks. Maybe they have been kidnapped because no other explanation makes sense.

Njoku is apparently fifth-string on a team that carries five tight ends. He was not even on the active roster the past two weeks. Njoku broke his wrist but was able to come back onto the active roster because of a special rule for players on the Injured Reserve (IR).

Since becoming eligible to come off injured reserve Week 11, Njoku has been thrown to three times, and has one catch for four yards in the first Cincinnati game December 8. Njoku was also involved in a weird play when he appeared to catch a pass, and then while he was on his back, the ball was stripped by linebacker Nick Vigil. How can you fumble when you are on your back? The call was then changed to an interception, in which case we are left with the question why the ball was not dead with the receiver on his back? Scuttlebutt is that Freddie Kitchens blamed Njoku for not hanging onto the ball.

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Similarly, Higgins has not had a ball thrown to him since the Pittsburgh debacle when he came up empty with three targets from Baker Mayfield. Earlier this year, Jason Lloyd of The Athletic (subscription required) broke the story that Higgins refused to go into the Seattle game October 13 when ordered to. Neither Higgins nor Kitchens have provided any details about what happened, but let’s just say that Higgins got into KItchens’ dog house and has stayed there for months.

The Browns cannot afford to be just casting aside starting caliber players. Higgins had 572 receiving yards last year and Njoku had 613 yards. HIggins picked up his 2018 yardage while being on the field for only 44.2 percent of the Browns offensive snaps. Thus, when he was on the field, he was productive at the level of a 1,000 yard receiver. Njoku picked up his yards while being on the field for 79.8 percent of the total offensive snaps, so he was closer to a full-time player.

Neither had 2018 stats worthy of enshrinement in Canton, but the Cleveland Browns are not so good that they can throw away over 1,000 yards receiving. There are no replacements on the current team who can do what these two players did last year.

If these players have done something bad, why keep it a secret? If you keep it a secret, the writers (including yours truly) are going to assume that the blame belongs entirely on the head coach rather than on the players. You do not want to leave the wrong impression, do you?

It is not as if the Browns are loaded with quality wide receivers and tight ends. Last week, the Browns started KhaDarel Hodge. No offense to Hodge, who is a hustling ballplayer and a fantastic coverage guy on special teams, but he has only three catches in eight targets for the year (or five for 11 lifetime if you prefer), and he is starting over Rashard Higgins. That makes no sense.

For that matter, the Browns traded for Taywan Taylor, who had 37 catches for 466 yards, and a catch percentage of 66.1 percent. This year, the Browns have seen fit to target him only one time the entire year. How can this be? Are the Browns so deep at wide receiver that they just can’t find any game snaps for Taylor? Or is he in the doghouse with Higgins?

Similarly, while tight end Ricky Seals-Jones has been impressive after being cut by Arizona and joining the Browns, he has only 14 catches and 229 yards for the year. That is not comparable at all to Njoku’s totals from last year.

NJoku is far from a perfect tight end. He has been rightfully criticized for not being a good blocker.  But even with these blemishes, he should be starting if he is physically healthy. There are many things he does better than Seals-Jones, Demetrius Harris, Pharaoh Brown and Stephen Carlson. His grade in 2018 from Pro Football Focus was higher than the 2019 grade of any of the other four tight ends. And heaven forbid that the Browns might find roles for players that have specialized talents and lack others (the Browns might be well advised to dig up some of the playbooks from Air Coryell and check out some of the plays for Kellen Winslow, Sr., but that is another story for another time).

If a player was late for a meeting or messes up on the field, charge them a small fine, make them run some 100-yard gassers at the end of practice, do whatever you need to do, and then let them back on the team.

The Browns need to punish players when they misbehave, but there needs to be a process where the player is restored. They just cannot sit in the doghouse their entire careers waiting to be traded or released. Mayfield needs more than two targets.  No football team can survive in today’s NFL without viable third and fourth receivers, plus legitimate tight ends.

It is truly shocking that No. 3 wide receivers and tight ends who performed well in 2018 are almost invisible in 2019. The two most prominent players are Njoku and Hollywood Higgins, who seemed to be emerging stars last year, and now seem to have caught a nasty case of leprosy.

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The most likely explanation–the only explanation left until such time as the coach opens up and tells his side of the story– is that the coach just has a very deep doghouse, and these players have taken up residence there. It appears to have cost the Browns at least 1,000 receiving yards.