4 Cleveland Browns who could emerge as impact players in 2021

Jan 10, 2021; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; Cleveland Browns defensive end Porter Gustin (97) warms up before playing the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field. The Browns won 48-37. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 10, 2021; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; Cleveland Browns defensive end Porter Gustin (97) warms up before playing the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field. The Browns won 48-37. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports /
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Cleveland Browns
Cleveland Browns tight end David Njoku (85) celebrates Austin Hooper’s touchdown against the New York Giants in the first half of a game at MetLife Stadium on Sunday, December 20, 2020, in East Rutherford. /

1. David Njoku, the (almost) forgotten man

The case for David Njoku is so obvious that everyone can see it coming except for the Browns fan base. He is an 800-yard tight end waiting to happen, especially if the Browns reaffirm their commitment to the two-tight-end offense rather than branch out to the ever-popular multiple wide receiver sets that are more common in today’s NFL.

Njoku and Austin Hooper are both capable of 800-yard seasons. Hooper was signed to one of the top tight end contracts in the NFL last season with the expectation that he would be one of the most productive tight ends, though Njoku was located deep within the Freddie Kitchens doghouse, so much so that the Browns practically had to send a rescue crew after him to find him.

For some reason, Njoku generates more than his share of hateful and sarcastic comments as evidenced by the comments below (if there are none to be found, wait a few hours and come back; it is just about guaranteed that there will be plenty of them. Njoku has speed and athleticism and is the best blocking tight end on the team.

There’s no reason why he cannot be an 800-yard receiver and be a threat for the Pro Bowl. The only thing he has failed to do is to stay healthy. That is a definite concern, but it is something less than a miracle we are asking for. Just be healthy and he will be a star this season. He has just as much ability as Austin Hooper. Both veterans are probably a few levels ahead of second-year man Harrison Bryant, but we will wait and see how much the kid has improved over the off-season.

This bold prediction is guaranteed to draw outrage, boos, and hurling of rotten vegetables from our loyal Dawg Pound Daily fan base. If you are new to the Dawg Pound and do not understand why the fans are barking here is a brief summary to bring you up to date:

The brief story is this: in 2017, general manager Sashi Brown proudly traded up to draft Njoku in the first round, thrilling the fan base. For a few days, there was a buzz concerning the possibilities of a two tight end offense with Njoku and popular Gary Barnidge, one of the few stars they had, and a fan favorite.

That lasted only a few days, however, because Barnidge was soon released. We never knew why Barnidge was released and why another team did not pick him up. Maybe there was an injury, or maybe he just had enough football. All we know is that we loved the guy, but then he was gone and Njoku was there instead.

Njoku was falsely blamed for the early retirement of our hero. It didn’t help that Brown traded away all the veteran quarterbacks plus Joe Haden in order to ensure that the Browns would land a top draft pick in 2018, and wound up going 0-16.

In 2018, Njoku had 639 receiving yards as a tight end, which was pretty good. However, he didn’t block very well. General manager John Dorsey called him out on that in 2019 and asked him to work hard on his blocking.

The kicker is, he did work hard on his blocking and improved enormously, but two things happened: first he had injuries in 2019, and coach Freddie Kitchens decided he did not like him, at one point making him a healthy scratch with four other tight ends on the 53-player roster, thus making him perhaps the only fifth-string tight end in NFL history. The Browns were having a lousy season in 2019, and the fan base took coach Kitchens’ side.

Njoku was proclaimed to be a draft bust, and the head coach and fan base gave up on him. Njoku asked to be traded, which made a bad situation worse. Many fans seem to totally believe he cannot catch and cannot block and refuse to believe anything to the contrary.

He was injured last season also. So, if you are the type that believes in booing players who are injured, this is your guy. He appeared in only 13 of 16 games last season. Austin Hooper, on the other hand, was practically an iron man, appearing in an amazing 13 of 16 games last season. Well, that’s the exact same number as Njoku, but it’s a matter of perception. Hooper is applauded, but Njoku is derided for appearing in the same number of games.

The numbers say that butterfingers Njoku had a catch percentage of 65.5% last season. Gluefingers Hooper had a catch percentage of 65.7%, or a differential of 0.2%. Pro Football Focus graded Njoku as the higher of the two tight ends on the team. Nevertheless, fans are upset that he gets paid $6 million for doing relatively little-only 213 yards.

That works out to $28,000 per yard. However, for the most part, fans seem pretty much okay with Austin Hooper’s $42 million-dollar deal for four years ($10.5 million per year) that netted 435 yards last season. That’s about $26,000 per yard. Evidently, that’s considered to be quite a bargain.

The best deal was Harrison Bryant who gets paid only $1.0 million per year. His 238 yards correspond to only $4200 per yard, but he does not grade nearly as high as either Njoku or Hooper.

If the Browns want to continue to feature a two-tight end offense, the fan base might as well understand that the tight ends need to get paid. There is nothing out of line with the salaries being paid to either Hooper or Njoku.

However, the team needs to get more yardage out of the tight ends, well over 1000 yards total, including some yards from Harrison Bryant and Stephen Carlson.

All the indications are that Njoku and Hooper should greatly step it up this year. The main issue is to stay healthy, which is partly luck and partly training. Right now, Baker Mayfield is the main force that still believes in Njoku, while the fan base for whatever reason still wants to keep stand guard around Freddie Kitchens’ doghouse and make sure he stays inside.

If Njoku has a big year, similar to 2018, in which he gained over 600 yards, everyone will say it was obvious that he could do it. But at the moment, the fan base does not seem to believe in him.
This writer, however, totally believes he can do it.

Next. 3 early defensive training camp standouts in 2021. dark

Tight ends, especially Njoku, have an excellent opportunity for a career year this year in the Stefanski/Van Pelt offense as long as they stay healthy.