Fantasy football 2022: Browns expect David Njoku to take big step forward

The Cleveland Browns continue to await David Njoku’s breakout season. They keep paying while they wait too.

It’s rare that a sixth-year player is still considered a potential star, but the Browns believe there are valid reasons why Njoku’s best is yet to come. With a possible quarterback change to Deshaun Watson and a total pass-game remake this offseason, the Browns are asking Njoku to take a big step forward in playing time and production.

Njoku has been a part-time player in four of his first five seasons. In head coach Kevin Stefanski’s friendly attack, Njoku had 47% of snaps in 2020 and 64% last year. But the Browns under Stefanski used Njoku in the red zone and on some quick screens, and the intention was to let the 6-foot-4, 246-pound Njoku use his physical gifts to win one-on-one matchups.

He’s big and fast enough to be a star. Can it be coherent enough to become one? The Browns believe Watson’s mobility and arm talent will unlock Njoku’s best traits, and the roster revamp should create opportunities for Njoku that haven’t existed in the past.

The team’s investments in the 2017 first-round pick have been significant. Prior to the 2021 season, the Browns took the fifth-year option on Njoku’s rookie contract at a cost of over $6 million. Prior to this season, the Browns used the franchise tag — and a guarantee of more than $11 million — to keep Njoku out of the market. Then, at the end of May, they signed him to a long-term contract worth $28 million in guarantees and potentially up to $55 million over four seasons.

Given that Njoku was only targeted 53 times last season, the Browns continue to pay for his potential rather than his production. Those big bets continue to be made on a player who is strong and athletic enough to both become a game problem in midfield and rack up valuable yards after the catch. Going back to drafting Njoku, the Browns have always viewed him as a developmental prospect with rare and raw gifts. With these continued investments, it’s fair to assume that they expect continued development and, eventually, big numbers.

“We definitely want to feature (Njoku),” Stefanski said in June. “(He has) great height, great length in terms of catching the football and being able to get up and snatch contested holds. I think there is an evolution that will continue for David the player. David certainly deserves this contract. He deserved it.

“He’s a big part of what we plan to do. there is no doubt. What impresses me most about David – I would use the word “evolution” again – is that he has become a complete tight end. There aren’t a ton of guys out there that can run, block, and catch. He can.”

The Browns released Austin Hooper in March, paving the way for Njoku to become the team’s top tight end. The Browns had signed Hooper to what turned out to be a poor contract in 2020 largely because Njoku hadn’t done enough to show he should be in the team’s longer-term plans. The team continues to have an optimistic view of Njoku’s progress, and fantasy managers should take note.

Njoku’s 71-yard touchdown against the Chargers last October came on a screen pass. Njoku cocked a would-be tackler stiff to get into space, then showed his speed on the way to a career-high play and day of seven catches and 149 yards. He had no more than 39 yards in a game the rest of the season.

Njoku struggled to catch the ball consistently, and that’s probably why his snap counts and the opportunities were inconsistent. But the Browns believe in previews, and if you take away the 61 targets Hooper got last season – almost all of the short and middle variety – there will be chances for Njoku to do more routine catches and set up. big potential plays later.

In 2019, the offense was a mess and Njoku suffered a wrist injury early in the season. He eventually opted for surgery and missed three months. He returned for the final month of the season, but was benched after coaches felt he hadn’t fully fought for a fly ball that ended up being intercepted by Bengals linebacker Nick Vigil . He finished that season with five catches on 10 targets.

Now he’s playing in the same offense for a third season and should have the best quarterback game he’s had at any time in his career. Regardless of Watson’s availability early in the season, the Browns will use action play to create opportunities for Njoku, and the team believes his speed coupled with additional experience and opportunities can lead to great things.

—Aaron Reiss of Athleticism contributed to this story.

(Photo: Ken Blaze/USA Today)

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