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Scoop Dawg: Who will win the starting TE spot? Our experts debate

This group is now a position of plenty with lots of talent

Cleveland Browns Training Camp
Austin Hooper
Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

Last season, the tight end group had arguably the worst offensive numbers.

Starter David Njoku suffered a wrist injury in Week 2. When he did return from IR, he was the invisible man in the few games he played.

During his absence, none of the other tight ends made a lasting impression. Ricky Seals-Jones had a coming out game against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 4 with 82 yards and a key touchdown catch followed by games in which he barely saw any targets much less catches. Undrafted Stephen Carlson looked great at times and lost the remainder of the year. Demetrius Harris and his 6’-7” frame was brought in to be this gigantic Red Zone threat yet was rarely thrown to in the end zone. Pharaoh Brown is considered strictly a blocker.

Newly-crowned head coach Kevin Stefanski was brought in to solve the club’s offensive woes. The experts all admire the talent on this side of the ball, yet the production is middle of the pack. Stefanski’s offense is tight end heavy-duty with several on the field at all times. New GM Andrew Berry made this position a priority in the off-season and signed Austin Hooper to a mega deal right off in free-agency of four years worth $44 million with a $10 million signing bonus.

Harris and Seals-Jones are both gone. The Browns selected Harrison Bryant, the Mackey Award winner for 2019, in the fourth-round of the NFL draft. The Browns exercised the fifth-year option on Njoku’s contract in order to keep him, but next year will have to sign him to a new contract.

But who will start this year? Who will be cut? Or traded? Or lands on the practice squad? Typically, four tight ends are kept. To start with, let’s see some arithmetic and salary numbers courtesy of our friends over at overthecap.com:

David Njoku (6’-4”, 246 pounds) – Browns first-round 2017: 2020 base salary $1.763 million; cap number $3.03 million

Austin Hooper (6’-4”, 254 pounds) – Atlanta Falcons third-round 2016: 2020 base salary $1.5 million; cap number $3.5 million

Pharaoh Brown (6’-5”, 258 pounds) – Undrafted 2017 (signed by Oakland Raiders): 2020 base salary $750,000; cap number $750,000

Stephen Carlson (6’-4”, 240 pounds) – Undrafted 2019 (signed by Browns): 2020 base salary $675,000; cap number $675,000

Harrison Bryant (6’-5”, 240 pounds) - Browns fourth-round 2020: 2020 base salary $610,000 million; cap number $802,258

Rufio

This is a little tough, because I think we’ll see a number of TEs and a FB at times in this offense. We may even declare two TE’s starters. So I’ll break down three guys if that’s ok.

Austin Hooper: We paid this guy a lot of money, and it seems to me that we paid a premium for scheme familiarity, for career trajectory, and for receiving skills. Hooper’s best asset might be his feel for zone coverage; and if you watch his highlight reels you’ll see him often finding the soft spot in a zone defense and therefore you’ll find him open. When he isn’t open, Hooper does an excellent job of sealing smaller defenders off like a power forward in the post, and he has very good hands (not quite OBJ-level, but very good). He can fight for and make contested catches when the ball is thrown accurately to the proper spot away from a defender. Those things are enormously underrated in a league obsessed with freak athleticism.

Hooper is an above-average athlete too, by the way. He’s an above-average threat after the catch, and he’s not bad at separating against man coverage. He is not an elite athlete, and he’s not an elite blocker in the run game. But this scheme doesn’t need or want one. Hooper can block adequately and he has experience in a similar scheme from his time with the Atlanta Falcons. Of the top guys on our TE depth chart, he’s probably the best blocker–which isn’t saying much. Hooper just doesn’t have many holes in his game.

Cleveland Browns v Houston Texans
David Njoku
Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

David Njoku: Njoku is the kind of elite athlete that reminds us that Hooper is merely an “above average” athlete. “The Chief” can jump through the roof, is a major threat after the catch, and can separate using his athleticism.

But in all of the ways that Hooper stands out, Njoku has kind of fallen flat to this point in his career. He isn’t the best route runner, he doesn’t seem to have a natural feel for sitting in zone coverage, and while he can make the spectacular catch he hasn’t been consistent catching the football.

Harrison Bryant: I really think Harrison Bryant is the wild card here. Bryant is basically a clone of Hooper but 10 pounds lighter with probably a lower ceiling as a blocker. He’s just open. He isn’t a crazy athlete, he just gets open and catches the ball. I don’t think Andrew Berry ever expected him to be available in the draft where we found him. But he was, and now he’s here and he’s capable of making a lot of first downs. Can we really keep this guy on the bench?

Starter: In the end, if there’s only one “starter” it’s Hooper. But how much do we play Njoku, who will definitely play a significant role? And what about Bryant? Will he earn a spot in the rotation or in certain packages? It will certainly be interesting to see over the course of the year, and I’m personally excited about the possibilities with this group.

Thomas Moore

One of the nice things about training camp this year for the Cleveland Browns is that, barring an injury, the starters are set at many positions.

Cleveland Browns v Baltimore Ravens
Pharaoh Brown
Photo by Todd Olszewski/Getty Images

That was not the case last year with the tight ends, as David Njoku’s injury in Week 2 left the position manned for almost the entire season by Pharaoh Brown, Stephen Carlson and Demetrius Harris, who combined for all of 22 receptions and 227 yards

Fast forward a year and the situation looks so much better.

The Browns did not sign Austin Hooper to a contract worth $42 million in guaranteed dollars to have him not be the top man at the position, so Hooper is a lock to be TE1. It has mostly been a quiet camp for Hooper as the veteran works to build his on-field relationship with quarterback Baker Mayfield. Quiet can be good, however, so there is not much to worry about when it comes to Hooper.

Potentially even better news is that the depth will allow the offense to have two talented tight ends on the field at the same time.

As limited as the tight ends were last season, Mayfield was still more productive when the Browns used two or more tight ends on the field, according to ESPN Stats & Information. In those situations, Mayfield averaged 8.3 yards per passing attempt with nine touchdown passes, three interceptions and a QBR of 62. Drop that down to one (or no) tight end and Mayfield’s numbers were 6.9 yards per attempt, 18 interceptions, 13 touchdowns and a QBR of 49.

RELATED: BAKER MAYFIELD ENTERS YEAR 3 - NO EXCUSES

Head coach Kevin Stefanski used multiple tight ends last season 57 percent of the time as offensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings and the Browns should be in that range this year with Njoku and rookie Harrison Bryant on the roster.

Njoku’s season went off the rails last year after he was injured, but if he is healthy there is every reason to believe he can be the same productive player that had 56 receptions and four touchdowns in 2018. Bryant has been catching a considerable amount of attention during training camp and should push for a nice amount of playing time and give the Browns a third viable option at the position.

Starter: Hooper is the unquestioned top man at the position, and it is a bit of personal preference when it comes to deciding between Njoku and Bryant over who should be 2A or 2B at tight end.

No matter how that battle shakes out, there will be plenty of opportunities for the tight ends on the roster this season, and the Browns finally have the depth to make that be a positive for the team.

Barry Shuck

Wow. What a assemblage of talent, eh? This year, the running back unit and the tight end group will compete for overall best position group is my guess. That is critical with this new offense which is a tight end heavy attack.

I realize David Njoku is a former first-round draft pick of the Browns. I got that. But, he is injury-prone and is basically a pass catcher and not much else. Pharaoh Brown is arguably the best blocking tight end of the entire lot and can be a very good Red Zone target. I thought after last season that Stephen “Stiff arm” Carlson would develop into one of those no-name-to-fame players, but apparently not and remains a project. He needs more blocking techniques as well. The only question I have regarding Brown is if they keep him only because of his blocking abilities, couldn’t fullback Andy Janovich fill in as a blocking TE instead?

Cleveland Browns Training Camp
Harrison Bryant
Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

For my money, give me Austin Hooper vs. rookie Harrison Bryant.

Hooper was signed to be the starter and was the one of the first good news happenings of the free agency period for the Browns. QB Baker Mayfield has already found his new best friend in Hooper during the off-season due to their workouts in Austin, Texas. The former third-rounder has already been to two Pro Bowls in his brief three-year career, so the talent is unquestioned.

In training camp, Bryant has caught literally everything thrown his way including bad balls. He has the weird ability to contort his body and twist it in mid-air to adjust to a poorly thrown ball. The kid is an amazing part of this new offense and plays like a seasoned veteran. His routes are clean and somehow he gets open quite a bit with a huge catch radius.

Starter: I believe that very soon Njoku will find a new home somewhere else. He is the worst blocker in this group and if this offense is going to use the run to set up the pass, everybody has to remain engaged on the line which Njoku is very poor doing. Both Hooper and Njoku have a cap hit of over $3 million each. I just can’t wrap my head around the idea that the front office would keep two players at the tight end position and pay both that kind of dough. If Njoku is injured again or has horrible production, the trade value is lost. And get this: Hooper will become the starter in Game 1 against the Baltimore Ravens, but by Week 10 Bryant will be TE1.

Matt Wood

The Browns really flipped the TE position this off-season. Last year the team struggled with injuries - and honestly production - from the TE position.

The Browns biggest weapon at TE last year was Ricky Seals-Jones, who I actually really liked; but obviously wasn’t the player that the Browns felt comfortable with at the top of the depth chart. Add in the fact that you can’t count on David Njoku to be healthy or productive, a serious addition needed to be made especially with this offense. Don’t forget, Baker seems to work best with tight ends. This was a need - not a want - for the Browns.

Cleveland Browns v Pittsburgh Steelers
Stephen Carlson
Photo by: 2019 Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

But to me, the one that I may be the most excited/intrigued by is rookie TE Harrison Bryant. I loved his game in college and he really seems to be a guy that can threaten a defense on the perimeter. He has been crazy productive in college and played well against the bigger boys (6 catches for 79 yards against Ohio State). I think he is groomed this season and takes over the #2 role next season, but I am very excited to see what he brings this season, especially in the red zone.

Starter: Enter Austin Hooper, who is a good enough blocker and a productive pass catcher in his time with the Falcons. He isn’t going to change defenses like a Travis Kelce or George Kittle, but he doesn’t have to be. He needs to be a reliable target for Mayfield and a good enough blocker to keep the run game on schedule. This then allows Njoku to become a #2 TE that can attack a defense downfield with his athleticism. With one signing the Browns improved two spots at one position.

Chris Pokorny

Austin Hooper - The Browns would not have signed Hooper to a 4-year, $42 million deal this off-season if they didn’t intend on him being Kevin Stefanski’s starting tight end. Hooper has very reliable hands, which is far-and-away the biggest edge he has over David Njoku. While Hooper isn’t meant to go one-on-one and beat players in man coverage, he excels at finding the opening in zone coverage and can be counted on as a good Red Zone target. He is an adequate pass blocker, but hasn’t been a top-notch run blocker.

David Njoku - Heading into the fourth year of Njoku’s career, we’re still waiting for him to display a level of consistency. He clearly has the speed and athleticism to make some great catches and be a game-changer, but has suffered from too many dropped passes. The stat sheet also doesn’t show the many times a ball has been thrown his way, and we expect to see that athleticism make a great leaping catch, only to see the pass fall incomplete as we quietly think, “Oh...hmmm, you know, I’d really like to see him start making those plays...” I was intrigued by how Njoku was used in the first practice at FirstEnergy Stadium, catching some quick passes before turning upfield.

Austin Hooper at the Pro Bowl

Starter: As far as the “starting” tight end goes, it will definitely be Hooper. But I’m also not viewing this as a case where Hooper-takes-all in terms of reps. We will see a lot of two tight-end sets, so Hooper and Njoku will often be paired together. The bigger question to me is who plays opposite Hooper, and whether that will be Njoku or rookie Harrison Bryant. Njoku has the edge, but is his consistency issues continue to be an issue, Bryant will be called upon.

Poll

On opening day, who will be TE1?

This poll is closed

  • 0%
    David Njoku
    (1 vote)
  • 95%
    Austin Hooper
    (464 votes)
  • 0%
    Pharaoh Brown
    (3 votes)
  • 1%
    Stephen Carlson
    (7 votes)
  • 2%
    Harrison Bryant
    (10 votes)
485 votes total Vote Now