Cleveland Browns general manager Andrew Berry has a healthy to-do list when it comes to free agency this spring.
Berry’s choices range from the easy - working out an extension for Pro Bowl cornerback Denzel Ward and seeing if he can meet the financial demands of defensive end Jadeveon Clowney - to the complex - when, or perhaps if, to offer quarterback Baker Mayfield and at what price.
Then there is the case of tight end David Njoku, which falls somewhere in the middle.
Despite having played five seasons with the Browns, Njoku will not turn 26 until this summer. (July 10 to be exact for those keeping score at home.) Njoku has flashed his athletic talent at times, such as his 149-yard receiving day against the Los Angeles Chargers last season, and outside of a wrist injury that cost him 11 games in 2019, Njoku has remained healthy as he has played in 65 out of a possible 81 games in his career.
The issue with Njoku is that the production has not always matched the potential. His best overall season was 2018, the year he had a career-high 88 targets and finished with 56 receptions for 639 yards and four touchdowns.
While those might not be bad numbers, they fall far behind the stats posted by the league’s best tight ends, players such as Travis Kelce of the Kansas City Chiefs, Mark Andrews of the Baltimore Ravens and George Kittle of the San Francisco 49ers.
At the end of the season, Njoku expressed a desire to remain with the Browns and the team seems open to having Njoku return. That makes sense given that they would not want to see the work they put into Njoku over the past five seasons pay off for another team if he puts it all together.
But as with just about every player, the decision with Njoku will be driven in large part by how much money the Browns are willing to put into his bank account. Which brings us to Berry’s conundrum - what should a new contract look like for Njoku?
We’ve already established that Njoku is not as productive as Kittle, Kelce or Andrews, so putting him in their financial class of $14-plus million a year seems like a non-starter.
On the other hand, Njoku could make a case that he is on par with Dallas Goedert of the Philadelphia Eagles, who signed a four-year, $57 million contract extension that includes $35 million in guaranteed money last November. While Goedert has more receptions (193 to 148) and yards (2,295 to 1,754) than Njoku, they both have averaged 11.9 yards per catch and Goedert only has one more touchdown reception (16 to 15) than Njoku.
And not that Njoku would want to throw a teammate under the bus, but he is better than tight end Austin Hooper, who is in the third year of a contract that pays him an average of $10.5 million per year.
Njoku’s agent may also want to present a bullet point that highlight’s the contract that tight end Jonnu Smith received from the New England Patriots, as The Athletic’s Sheil Kapadia highlights in ranking Njoku at No. 61 on his list of the Top 75 free agents:
He’s one of the tougher free agents to project. On one hand, Njoku has never lived up to his draft slot (29th overall in 2017). On the other hand, he turns 26 in July and given his talent, there could be an untapped upside. Njoku’s career high in receiving yards was 639 in 2018. Last year, he had 36 catches for 475 yards on 53 targets. Those numbers aren’t much different than what Jonnu Smith put up in 2020, and Smith signed with the New England Patriots for $12.5 million per year.
Berry might not see it the same way, of course, and could be looking to offer a contract more in line with spotrac.com’s market value estimator, which places Njoku’s value at a four-year deal with an average salary of a bit more than $6.7 million. That would put Njoku in the same category as Tyler Higbee of the Los Angeles Rams, C.J. Uzomah of the Cincinnati Bengals and Gerald Everett of the Seattle Seahawks.
That is obviously a large gap, so it will be interesting to see how much the Browns value Njoku vs. how the rest of the league views him, as well as Njoku’s acceptance of his true value as a free agent.
What should the Browns do with David Njoku?
This poll is closed
Pay him whatever it takes
Find a happy place between $6M and $14M a year
Let him walk in free agency