Why the Browns aren’t crazy for paying TE David Njoku more than $13.6 million a year: Mary Kay Cabot

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Somehow, the raging social media debate over whether or not the Browns overpaid tight end David Njoku was lost on the tight end himself.

“It’s actually my first time hearing that the Browns overpaid me,” Njoku said in his podium interview after OTAs on Wednesday. “I didn’t hear that. It is what it is. I feel like we’re going to do great things together in the near future.”

But while the controversy escaped him, even cap experts like Jason Fitzgerald, founder of OvertheCap.com, weighed in on the four-year deal worth up to $56.750 million, tweeting “That is an awful signing by the Browns.”

He wasn’t alone, with thousands of fans and critics ripping the extension, which makes Njoku the fifth-highest paid tight end in the NFL behind George Kittle, Travis Kelce, Dallas Goedert and Mark Andrews at $13,687,500 per year, not counting the $2 million in incentives that max out the deal.

Still others, such as analytics expert Warren Sharp of SharpFootballAnalysis.com, hailed the contract, noting that Deshaun Watson “will use him a ton.” Sharp also listed some of Njoku’s excellent 2021 rankings, including No. 2 among tight ends in yards after catch and (6.9) and No. 4 in yards per catch (13.2).

Granted, Njoku is in some lofty company with the four tight ends ahead of him on the salary list, with three of them –except Goedert — being first-team All-Pros and multiple Pro Bowlers.

But the Browns have made it clear with this deal that they’re banking on Njoku growing into the contract rather than paying him for services rendered.

“David’s multifaceted skill set in both the run and pass game is a key component of our offensive system,” Browns general manager Andrew Berry said. “His ability to generate explosive plays with his athleticism, speed and run-after-catch ability along with his productivity as a blocker on the line of scrimmage is a difficult combination to find in a single player. We’ve seen David grow throughout his time here and are excited to see his best football over the next several seasons.”

To be sure, Njoku, the Browns No. 29 overall pick in 2017, has had five tumultuous seasons here, complete with wrist surgery in 2019, a prolonged trip into Freddie Kitchens’ doghouse, two requests to be traded, five offensive coordinators, his starting quarterback in Baker Mayfield asking to be traded, and his new quarterback in Deshaun Watson awaiting word on a possible suspension.

But somehow, Njoku — still only 25 — has managed to improve every year and wants to finish his career in the place it all started and got weird at times.

“I guess everything comes full circle,” Njoku said. “Obviously in the past, we’ve had our differences. To be able to sign a four-year deal here where it all started, means everything to me. I’m very blessed to be here.”

As for paying Njoku like an All-Pro, closer examination of the contract reveals that he’s essentially making $25 million over the first two years, with a $12.5 million average that would tie him for sixth in the NFL. The guaranteed money in the deal is worth $28 million, and the Browns have a potential out after only three seasons for $39.5 million, with only $4.586 million in dead cap space.

It’s still a lot for a tight end who’s averaged only 36 receptions, 428 yards and 3.5 touchdowns in his four healthy seasons, but the Browns are counting on much more production from Njoku over the next several years, especially with Watson throwing him the ball.

As it stands, Njoku has 15 career touchdown catches among his 148 receptions for one almost every 10th reception. With Watson delivering the ball with tremendous accuracy and arm strength, Njoku — a bona fide downfield and red zone threat – should easily be able to double his average yearly production and catch eight touchdown passes this season.

With Austin Hooper released and now with the Titans, Njoku is the undisputed No. 1 tight end, and will likely get the second-most targets on the team behind Amari Cooper. Stefanski loves to throw to his tight ends, and so does Watson, who’s thrown about 20% of his 104 touchdown passes to the position.

“With Dave, we certainly want to feature him,” Stefanski said Wednesday. “His skillset, as we all know, great size, great length in terms of catching the football and being able to go up and pluck contested catches. I’d speak to his development as a blocker. That’s something that I’m proud of David for his evolution of a blocker.

Stefanski noted he’s most impressed with Njoku “becoming a complete tight end. There are not a ton of guys who can block, run and catch…David certainly is deserving of that contract. He earned it. He did everything we asked him to do.”

How Njoku’s performance stacks up against the other top paid tight ends

Njoku (6-4, 246) has come so far as a blocker that offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt called him “one of the best run blocking tight ends in the league. …His toughness, his strength, his ability to understand our scheme and what we are asking him to do, he has grown tremendously. It’s been fun.”

Njoku admitted he had no choice but to get good at it during his lean years here.

“I love blocking,” he said. “Honestly, I fell in love with it because at a point, it was all that I was really doing so I had two options: I can either cry about it or just slam people. I thing to block, and I enjoy it now.”

With Watson at quarterback, the Browns will play less 13 personnel or three tight ends, and Njoku will be the beneficiary of the extra targets. He had to take a backseat the past two years to Hooper, then one of the highest-paid tight ends in the game, and his production suffered. But with Hooper out of the way and Harrison Bryant as the No. 2, Njoku will have a chance to shine and live up to his first-round draft status.

“I don’t know if he physically can grow any more, but his game can grow,” Stefanski said. “That’s a conversation I’ve had with him. I do expect his game to grow, and it’s not as simple as saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to throw more balls to you.’ You’ll see it in the run game and in the pass game, and you’ll see it kind of throughout. I think he’s committed to that. David wants to get better, and to be 25, I think you have that opportunity to get better.”

Early on in his career, Njoku dropped a lot of passes, including six in 2018. But he’s also come a long way in that regard, with only five drops in his past three seasons combined. Still, there’s always room for improvement.

“Just the details of catching the ball,” Van Pelt said. “He has really good hands at times, but just finishing the plays. The route development, especially on plays where he has to break down and make cuts. David is really fast and a really good straight-line runner so improvement in his route-running ability when he’s not doing those things.”

Njoku has worked extremely hard on his game over the years, and will once again attend Tight End University this offseason, put on by Kittle, Kelce and Greg Olsen. It will be held June 22-24 at Vanderbilt, and Njoku will have a chance to work side by side with the first tight ends in his pay grade.

“Picking each other’s minds, brainstorming on how to get open on certain plays, certain routes, it all helps for sure,” Njoku said. “They are the greats and you know I applaud them, but I’m not really thinking of if I’m better than them or whatever. I’m just focused on what I gotta do to help this team win.”

Njoku, who skipped the voluntary offseason program from April 19th until he signed his extension on Wednesday, took Watson up on his all-expenses paid trip to the Bahamas, and the two began to work on their chemistry there.

“We got the work in,” he said. “We also bonded as a team, built some chemistry. It was a great choice for the offense to go together.”

Over the next couple of years, tight end salaries will escalate, the salary cap will increase and Njoku’s production should skyrocket.

Before long, the Chief’s blockbuster extension will no longer get slammed.

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