David Njoku’s long path to redemption with the Cleveland Browns

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 will have a road to redemption with the Cleveland Browns.

Nobody was further down in 2019 than David Njoku. Coming off what seemed to be a breakout year in 2018 catching passes from Baker Mayfield, Njoku was perhaps the NFL’s only fifth string tight end in the NFL by the end of the 2019.

Really, what other team has five tight ends on the roster? Njoku wound up so far in head coach Freddie Kitchens’ doghouse that he was inactive at the end of the season behind Stephen Carlson, Ricky Seals-Jones, Demetrius Harris, and Pharaoh Brown.

Nevertheless, Njoku’s spirits are high. In fact, he had the temerity to tweet his gratitude at experiencing adversity.

More from Dawg Pound Daily

You know the old saying, what does not kill you, makes you stronger. Njoku started the year by being called out by general manager John Dorsey, who made no bones about wanting to see better blocking from him. He was coming off a 2018 season in which he established a great rapport with Mayfield. Njoku caught 49 balls out of 74 targets, or 66.2 percent, with 603 receiving yards from Mayfield (he also had 36 receiving yards from Tyrod Taylor).

Mind, there should be no problem with Dorsey being allowed to say whatever he wants if he thinks it will make a player play better. But in football, harsh criticism is not the signal to give up on the player. That was not Dorsey’s intent, though it may have been interpreted that way by the coaching staff.

Njoku suffered a broken wrist in Week 2 last season, and then allegedly was indecisive about whether to have surgery or allow it to heal on its own. That got him in trouble with Kitchens. Then he was the victim of a crazy play against the Bengals last year, in which an apparent pass completion was ruled a fumble after he hit the ground.

No one can explain how a fumble could occur from a player who is on the ground, but Nick Vigil got credit for a fumble recovery. Kitchens was mad as a bear with a sore behind after that play, but it was absolutely not Njoku’s fault. It was a freak play with a highly innovative call by the official.

Njoku is not just a dumb jock. His older brother is a neurosurgeon, one sister is in medical school and another is a nurse, and a third sister is a mechanical engineer. Two of his brothers are at UCLA playing for Chip Kelly. The entire family has a reputation for character, brains and athleticism. This is absolutely the type of kid who the Cleveland Browns should be excited to have play for them.

Andrew Berry agrees, making the most controversial decision of his young career by agreeing to exercise Njoku’s fifth year option. That means Njoku will have a guaranteed contract in 2021. The amount is based on a formula tied to the salary of other starting NFL tight ends, and will probably be around $6 million.

That is a major chunk of change for a fifth string tight end who had five catches for 41 yards last year, especially since they now have former Falcon star Austin Hooper, Carlson entering his second year, and rookie fourth round draft choice Harrison Bryant. Not only that, the Browns want to carve out a roster space for true fullback Andy Janovich, and they also have Pharaoh Brown lurking in the background.

However, there is every reason to believe Njoku can still catch passes from Mayfield. The Browns cannot just give up on a tight end who had over 600 receiving yards in 2018. The biggest criticism is that he has not been a fantastic blocker. Going up against Myles Garrett every day in practice is going to help him improve in a hurry. Put it this way, if he survives getting beat up by Garrett, the other NFL rushers are not going to be that threatening.

In 2018, how much did Njoku actually give up with his allegedly terrible blocking? Mayfield was sacked only five times the entire second half of the season, which is close to a record-setting performance. At the same time, Nick Chubb was outstanding (996 yards and 5.2 yards per carry) once Dorsey forced Hue Jackson to let Chubb play (Dorsey traded away Carlos Hyde as a form of gentle persuasion to give the kid a chance). Put it this way, if there was a hole at the tight end position, it was not very evident.

New head coach Kevin Stefanski and offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt will no doubt want to continue Njoku’s maturation by working with him on all phases of blocking, as well as pass catching. However, they may want Njoku to assume the role that Ricky Seals-Jones had last season as a pass catching tight end.

To some extent, they may have to live with his limitations as a blocker while trying to maximize his opportunities to catch passes. A cold weather natural turf football team like the Browns has to have receivers who can catch a bullet pass for seven yards in freezing rain. Going deep for the bomb is great also, but they are going to make their living on ball control and pounding the opposition.

When the Browns go with 12 personnel group (1 RB, 2 TE), there may be opportunities to have the tight end move to the slot or even split wide from time to time.

Next. One player Browns wish they could steal from each AFC North team. dark

Njoku was definitely on his way out under Freddie, but is going to get a second chance under Kevin Stefanski & Co. Very likely Stefanski will find better ways to use him than the previous coaching staff did.