Last year, Austin Hooper was newly-minted GM Andrew Berry’s first top-shelf free agent signing. Once announced, it appeared that Berry had hit the jackpot with the two-time Pro Bowler at a position with the Browns that was in dire need of a star player.
However, Hooper (6’-4”, 254 pounds) did anything but gleam. In fact, he had a sub-standard year compared to his other seasons.
Meanwhile, former first-round draft pick David Njoku (6’-4”, 246 pounds) was just hanging on to his job when Cleveland signed not only Hooper as their free agency splash, but then drafted the Mackey Award winner Harrison Bryant (6’-5”, 243 pounds). Suddenly, Njoku appeared to be somewhere near the trading block. He wanted to be traded, then said no he would rather stay. As the trade deadline approached, the odds were on Njoku being fitted for a new uniform.
But he stuck it out and had a very good season, especially since he finally learned how to not only block but sustain blocks.
Then there is Stephen Carlson (6’-4”, 240 pounds) who has made a name for himself on special teams. But he is an excellent blocker and will get catches when called upon. Also on the roster is Connor Davis (6’-8”, 271 pounds) and Jordan Franks (6’-4”, 246 pounds) seeking one of the four roster spots.
In this year’s training camp, all eyes will squarely be on Hooper against Njoku for the starting nod. Of course, head coach Kevin Stefanski uses a lot of two tight end sets, so both will play quite a bit. But who will win this battle of TE1? Can Hooper rebound from an average year last season? Will Njoku take over his Number 1 spot and finally become the player he was drafted to be as a former first-round draft pick?
Similar to the backup situation at wide receiver, the tight end group will revolve on a weekly basis with plenty of opportunities for everyone based on matchups. Austin Hooper will be TE1, at least for depth chart purposes, and will look to improve on a somewhat disappointing first season with the Browns.
David Njoku will be looking for more targets as he enters the final year of his rookie contract. After exerting too much energy listening to his agent last season about a trade, Njoku should be focused in as he positions himself for a second contract. Harrison Bryant has hopefully been working on holding onto the ball after the catch during the offseason, which was an area that plagued him during his rookie season.
Individually the group did not have a dynamic season in 2020, but collectively they still totaled 89 receptions for 886 yards and nine touchdowns, which is not a bad showing.
Pick: Austin Hooper
The Dawgs Podcast
Who will be the tight end one for the Browns in 2021? I think if you ask most fans this question, you’ll probably get a laugh or an eye roll. The tight end one for the Browns is obviously Austin Hooper, right? I mean, the Browns signed Hooper last off-season to what was, at the time, the largest contract for a tight end in the NFL (though Travis Kelce and George Kittle both signed bigger deals not long after). With Hooper inked to a 4 year/$42 million contract, it looked like the end was near for David Njoku’s tenure in Cleveland.
When the Browns drafted Njoku with the 29th pick in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft, Browns fans thought we’d just snagged the next ultra-athletic, high-profile tight end. But in his four seasons so far, Njoku has largely disappointed. His season highs came in 2018 when he caught 56 of 83 targets for 639 yards and four touchdowns. He also had eight drops that season, which has been a recurring issue with Njoku.
So, yeah, the tight end one is obviously Hooper, though the Browns did pick up Njoku’s fifth-year option last off-season to keep him in Cleveland despite Njoku’s trade requests after the Hooper signing. That seemed to be a head-scratcher for fans at the time when rumors were swirling of sending Njoku and a draft pick to the Jaguars for defensive end Yanique Ngakoue. But the Browns opted to keep Njoku for the last two years of his rookie deal instead of bringing in a guy on a one-year rental. And once we started looking at the numbers, the clear-cut tight end one in Cleveland was suddenly not so clear cut.
Per Pro Football Focus (PFF), Hooper played 784 snaps in 2020. He lined up 78.5% inline and 20.4% in the slot/wide. Njoku played far fewer snaps at 461, with 77.4% lined up inline and 22.3% in the slot/wide. Very similar to Hooper’s splits. Also similar are the run/pass snap splits. Hooper’s snaps were 45% run and 55% pass. Njoku’s snaps were 46% run and 54% pass. So if you look at these percentages, the two tight ends were utilized almost identically.
What’s interesting are the PFF grades for each player. Hooper’s overall offense grade was 69.8 and Njoku’s was 70.1. Hooper’s receiving grade of 72.0 was noticeably higher than Njoku’s 67.6, but the blocking grades caught our eye. Njoku’s run block grade was 63.6, while Hooper’s was lower at 58.9. Also, Njoku’s 77.4 pass block grade was significantly higher than Hooper’s 63.2.
When you take out the disparity in overall snap count (Hooper did play 323 more snaps than Njoku), the splits and percentages are very similar between the two tight ends. So while Hooper’s receiving appears to be ahead of Njoku’s, the PFF stats show that Njoku is actually the better blocker. We bet if you asked the casual Browns fan who the Browns best blocking tight end was, they would tell you Hooper, no question. But actually, Hooper was the Browns third-best blocking tight end behind Njoku and rookie Harrison Bryant.
So that’s why, after looking into the numbers, it’s not so clear-cut that Hooper is far and away the best tight end on the Browns. His contract says he is, but his splits and utilization show that the Browns use their tight ends in a specific way, and they have two players who can get the job done. And, actually, it appears that Njoku is ahead of Hooper when it comes to both run and pass blocking.
So now let’s get away from data and just speculate. Tight end is a position that typically takes three to four years for a player to develop if they’re going to become a dominant player. Tight ends have a lot more adjustments to make when they come into the NFL with their route running, pass catching, and blocking, not to mention they’re usually on some special teams units. Not many tight ends put up big numbers when they’re 21, 22, 23 years old. Hooper started making waves in Atlanta in his 24 and 25 year-old seasons. Njoku is 24 years old now. What if all that athleticism, speed, and muscle finally collides with growth and maturity at the position for Njoku in 2021? He might not look like Darren Waller (age 27 when he broke out), but what if he starts playing like Jonnu Smith, who didn’t exactly “show up” until this past season (age 24)?
So while the average fan might not think the tight end position battle will be a top one to watch in training camp, The Dawgs Podcast is definitely excited to see how it unfolds and whether or not David Njoku can finally elevate his game to the next level.
Pick: Austin Hooper
I am one of those “seeing is believing” type people. Although I do believe in love, God, truth & trust, and the wind and I can’t see any of those.
Austin Hooper was the very first huge signing for newly-minted GM Andrew Berry. And when you sign a dude to a very huge contract, and that player is only a tight end, you expect results. Immediate results. Eye-popping results. Pro Bowl hardware.
Which Hooper showed up with - two in fact. He has good hands and is a decent blocker. A look at his two Pro Bowl years might show a clue, though. He had 71 receptions for 660 receiving yards in 2018 and then 787 yards on 75 catches the following season. 10 touchdowns combined. A 9.9 yards per reception average for both years. Not exactly eye-opening numbers. I get it: he’s not a receiver but a tight end whose job a lot of the time is to block.
But with the Browns in his first season, his receiving yards dropped by 45% and his 46 receptions were nowhere close to catching over 70 balls. Yes, the Browns are a running team. But they do pass quite a bit and Kevin Stefanski wants his tight ends to be on the receiving end of passes with those huge lumbering bodies that the defense will suddenly have to contend with.
So back to the “seeing is believing” theory, I just am not seeing Hooper as a viable threat with this offense.
I believe David Njoku is going to bust out this year as a receiver, a very good blocker, and not only the starter, but the tight end that Baker Mayfield will look for. The dude can really leap for a ball which is a huge advantage.
Njoku is a chiseled man whose time has finally arrived now that he is more mature; and the fact that last year he saw that his first-round status didn’t mean a thing once they signed not only Hooper to that huge deal but also drafted a very good player at his position in Harrison Bryant. If he isn’t playing and playing well, Njoku now knows he could soon be shown the door.
Pick: David Njoku
What say you? Who will win TE1?
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