The Cleveland Browns may not have received the most explosive season from their tight ends in 2020, but collectively the group still put together a solid campaign.
The triumvirate of Austin Hooper, David Njoku and Harrison Bryant combined to catch 89 passes for 886 yards and nine touchdowns.
While not on par with the likes of Travis Kelce in Kansas City or Darren Waller in Las Vegas, the position group still gave head coach Kevin Stefanski and quarterback Baker Mayfield something to work with on a weekly basis.
The Browns appear set at the position heading into 2021, with Bryant and Hooper entering the second year of their respective contracts, and Njoku entering the final year of his rookie deal after the Browns picked up his fifth-year option last spring.
That may not be the case, necessarily, given that since last summer Njoku has gone from requesting a trade to rescinding that request, accepting and doing his best in a new role in the offense, saying that the situation will resolve itself, to finally posting vague Tweets that only fueled speculation about just what is happening.
The speculation increased this week after the Minnesota Vikings released veteran tight end Kyle Rudolph, who would be a natural fit in Cleveland as he is familiar with Stefanski’s offense from their time together in Minnesota.
That presumes the Browns are in the market for a tight end, which might be a stretch given the production from Hooper, Njoku and Bryant that we mentioned.
There are three primary scenarios for the position that general manager Andrew Berry can pursue in the coming weeks, so let’s take a look at them, going from best to worst.
The Status Quo
The goal of every team is to improve on the previous season, and sometimes the best way to do that is to run it back with the same group of players.
There has been a considerable amount of attention paid to the benefits of having Mayfield head into a second season in the same offense for the first time in his NFL career. So why can’t that be true for the tight ends as keeping the group together helps them and the entire offense build on the foundation put in place in 2020.
After the season, Berry can then go to work on deciding what to do with the position group.
If Njoku has a good season, the Browns can look to sign him to a second contract and look to trade Hooper or restructure his contract. Moving on from Hooper after just two seasons would carry an $11.25 million cap hit, according to spotract.com, so that might be a bit tough for Berry to stomach.
If Njoku has simply had enough and wants out, the Browns can let him leave in free agency and pocket a compensatory draft pick in the process.
Either way, the Browns will still have consistency with a starting tight end, along with a backup in Bryant, assuming he can solve his ball security issues, to build on.
The Trade and Sign
Continuing with the idea that Njoku really does want out, Berry could look to trade him this offseason so the Browns get something in return, and then sign a short-term replacement such as Rudolph or another free agent, to take Njoku’s spot.
The return on a potential trade is hard to determine, however.
If there is a team that believes Njoku’s second season, where he had 56 receptions for 639 yards and four touchdowns, is a good indicator of the type of player he can be, then Berry may be able to get a player who can help the Browns at another position of need.
Of course if that is the case, then why wouldn’t the Browns simply keep Njoku?
Alternatively, if teams view Njoku’s 2020 season, where he had just 19 receptions for 213 yards and two touchdowns as his true value, then can Berry really get a return worth his time in a trade?
If that proves true, then we’re back to the idea of the Browns simply keeping Njoku and seeing what they can get out of him this season.
The Nuclear Option
If Njoku has actually decided, for real this time, that he simply can’t bear being part of a team that looks poised to make a deep run into the playoffs, the Browns could simply release him before his $6.013 million salary becomes fully guaranteed when the new league year begins on March 17.
The Browns would not have any dead cap space to deal with if they release Njoku before March 17, and they can then utilize the short-term free agent option to sign someone to fill Njoku’s role this fall.
That is the kind of move that the Browns of old would do, however, so it seems unlikely that Berry will go down this path.
Berry has options when it comes to dealing with the tight ends this offseason, but he also has several other roster spots that need his attention, so sticking with the status quo appears to be the best course of action.
What should the Browns do about the tight ends in 2021?
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The Status Quo
Trade and Sign
The Nuclear Option