Cleveland Browns should give David Njoku a shot at wide receiver

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) /

David Njoku has struggled to become a traditional tight end for the Cleveland Browns, but he may be better suited as a wide receiver.

Cleveland Browns tight end David Njoku might be more dangerous as a wide receiver rather than as a tight end. He motors very well for a big man (6-foot-4 and 246 pounds with a combine 40-yard dash time of 4.64 seconds) and can jump through the roof to make highlight reel catches (37.5” vertical). What he hasn’t done so far is become a consistent blocker.

Last year, the personable and charismatic young man wound up in Freddie Kitchens’ doghouse. That dog house was huge, about the same sized as Elvis Presley’s Graceland mansion, so it is easy to see how Njoku could have gotten lost in there, despite the fact that he is well-liked, articulate and comes from a family of overachieiving athletes and academics.

Njoku’s older brother is a neurosurgeon, one sister is in medical school and another is a nurse, and a third sister is a mechanical engineer. His little brother is a wide receiver at Miami. It does not make sense that a fellow with no reputation for trouble should wind up in Kitchens’ doghouse.

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Kitchens denies even having a doghouse, but Njoku only having five catches for 41 yards says otherwise. Kitchens and his offensive coordinator, Todd Monken, seemed to feel that his deficiencies as a blocker outweighed his value as a receiver. In 2018, he was good for 56 receptions and 639 yards. He can catch the ball, but that was not enough to earn him a spot on the field with the Kitchens/Monken offense.

First of all, it might be that with a different coaching staff, they might be able to fix his deficiencies as a blocker. However, the Browns drafted him because of his athleticism, jumping ability and highlight reel catches while playing for Miami.

MAYBE THAT’S WHAT HE IS GOOD AT. And maybe he just does not have as much blocking ability as the team thought when they drafted him.

The New England Patriots have a well deserved reputation for figuring out what players do well and letting them do it. They have been a run-and-shoot team with four wide receivers, and at other times they have featured two tight ends. The Browns seem to thrive on finding out what they are not good at and fixating on it. Hence they have moaned for years about Njoku’s lack of ability as a blocking tight end but have never considered allowing him to do anything else.

If Njoku is not an every down receiver–and he may not be–some teams may not have a guy who can cover him. Let him split wide with Jarvis Landry in the slot and Odell Beckham, Jr. on the other side. If the other teams are devoting their best cover guys to OBJ and Landry, will they have someone left to cover Njoku? Then again, if the opposing defense proves that they can contain him, the Browns can counter by bringing in speedster Damion Ratley to see how they handle a No. 3 receiver with 4.45 speed. There is also Kareem Hunt wanting some more game reps, and he has been successful as a receiver also.

Last year’s No. 4 wide receiver was Antonio Callaway with a mere eight catches for 89 yards (these numbers are not made up! It really was that bad last year). Anyway, Callaway has opted to pursue a career investigating the benefits of medicinal marijuana, and is no longer part of the team. The next wide receiver is a tie between KhaDarel Hodge and Rashard Higgins (who is a free agent this offseason) with four catches. Those are crazy depressing numbers.

The point is that if the Browns do not have depth at wide receiver, that is all the more reason to create some routes for Njoku as a split end. Njoku can still play tight end part of the time, but it may be that he does his best work as a big, physical wide receiver, rather than as a tight end who has trouble with blocking assignments.

The Browns have several tight ends who would be prepared to take over the position from Njoku. Ricky Seals-Jones showed the most moxie after coming over from Arizona, and the Browns also seem to be high on Stephen Carlson. Veteran Demetrius Harris and Pharaoh Brown were probably the best blocking tight ends, but did not exactly set the league on fire.

Having five tight ends on the roster is highly unusual. Suffice it to say that they do not really need additional tight ends, and if Njoku were to convert to wide receiver, they would still have four tight ends that they like. Two or three would be more typical for most NFL teams.

Extra wide receivers were basically ignored last year, with Ratley totaling 12 catches and 200 yards as the third wide receiver, one of the worst stats for a third wide receiver in the NFL. With only 24 targets, it is obvious that the Browns did not trust anyone but their top two receivers.

When you think about matchup problems, some of you oldsters might recall the Greatest Show on Turf 20 years ago in St. Louis, when Kurt Warner had Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt as his primary receivers. But they also had possession receiver Ricky Proehl to contend with, and their No. 4 wide receiver was Az-Zahir Hakim who could run a 4.30 40-yard dash, and absolutely scared defensive coordinators. It wasn’t that he was so great, but he was a mismatch as the No. 4 wide receiver.

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Njoku was definitely on his way out under Freddie, but may get a second chance under Kevin Stefanski & Co. Here’s hoping that they also consider ways to find a better fit between his abilities and his assignments. Njoku has more touchdown catches in him than pancake blocks.