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Training camp: What to expect from the tight end room

Will this year’s group be more of the same?

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David Njoku
Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The Browns are built to run the ball. And for this to be successful, everyone on the offense must be a good blocker. That is stating the obvious.

Head coach Kevin Stefanski loves the tight end position and appreciates what they bring to a run-first offense. This year’s group has few veterans and quite a bit of young guys who will be given every chance to develop their skills and hopefully contribute.

Last year the Browns kept four tight ends and at times added a fifth, so the competition will be intense for the bottom of this group. Cleveland also had a fullback on the roster.

David Njoku (6’-4”, 246 pounds)

Now in his sixth season after being taken in the first round of the 2017 NFL draft, the starting tight end position is his every day in training camp instead of sharing it with Austin Hooper or wondering who will start which games.

Blessed with excellent jumping abilities, Njoku has great hands with deceptive speed. Plus, his yards after contact increase each year.

What he needs is to be the Number 1 tight end and just let him go after it. This is the first training camp where he has been given the torch. He inked a four-year $56.75 million extension in May so the coaching staff is depending on him having a breakout season.

The biggest plus with Njoku is that he is now a surprisingly good blocker. In college while at Miami, he wasn’t asked or expected to block at the line or downfield and subsequently came into the NFL as a poor blocker. On every pre-draft scouting report, it states “needs to improve blocking.”

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The dude can absolutely jump and contort his body with bad throws. While Hooper was with the Browns, it was amazing that the organization did not trade Njoku and there were numerous instances that he might have been on the trading block. But yet, here he is - and is now the undisputed starter.

Harrison Bryant (6’-5”, 230 pounds)

When the Browns released Hooper, that meant they wanted to keep Bryant and believe in his receiving and blocking skills.

Taken in the fourth round of the 2020 NFL draft, Bryant is an impressive athlete having played baseball, basketball and football in high school where he began as an offensive tackle before switching to tight end. This experience gave him excellent blocking techniques and came to the Browns a solid blocker.

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Now entering his third season, Bryant runs a good route and can create space. He has had issues with focus drops which has hindered several good drives. This improved dramatically from his rookie campaign to last year when he went from three drops to just one. And so far, only two fumbles but no loss of possession.

What are the expectations for Bryant this year? Now he has proved his worth that he is more than just depth. He had nine starts his rookie year but just three last year. More importantly, his targets, receptions and total yards decreased in his second season. Now that he doesn’t have Hooper taking snaps and targets away from him, expect the offense to operate with two tight end sets with Bryant listed as TE2.

His development is over with. What’s next is progress to increase as well as the ability to make plays. Look for Bryant to get more than 50 targets this year and perhaps in the line of 50 receptions. He will also be a key element in the running game with his blocking skills which are already a productive portion of his game.

This should become Bryant’s breakout season and show why he was the best tight end coming out of college.

Miller Forristall (6’-5”, 245 pounds)

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As a member of Alabama for five seasons, you know Forristall knows how to block. He has a season behind him and comes into camp with one year of experience at the NFL level after going undrafted.

The fact that the Browns did not bring back Stephen Carlson is a message that the coaching staff likes what they see with Forristall. He was Alabama’s starting tight end his final two seasons with 24 career starts. His senior year he had just 253 receiving yards on 23 catches, but his blocking skills is why he never came off the field for his stint with the Two Time National Champions.

Forristall has had issues with injuries including a torn ACL in his sophomore year plus broke his larynx and hyoid bone in his throat which caused him to miss four games.

A former quarterback in high school, his blocking skills are outstanding. As a receiver, he needs to improve separation and improve his footwork. He could very well make this roster as TE3, but the competition will be fierce.

Nakia Griffin-Stewart (6’-5”, 260 pounds)

Griffin-Stewart bounced around the practice squad of various clubs last year after going undrafted. He was elevated to the Kansas City Chiefs active roster for two games at season’s end but had only three offensive snaps. He signed a reserves/futures deal in the spring with Cleveland.

He started all 11 games with Pitt his senior year after playing for Rutgers for three seasons. With Pitt, he had 185 yards on 19 receptions with one touchdown.

At both schools Nakia Griffin-Stewart has never been a threat in the passing game but is a big body who is an average blocker. His route running is just so-so with focus drops an issue.

Zaire Mitchell-Paden (6’-5”, 257 pounds) – Florida Atlantic

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Mitchell-Paden had a limited college career in that he basically had one year. His numbers were seven starts with nine receptions for 90 yards and one score.

He is a very athletic player who previously played four years at D-2 Notre Dame College. Undrafted, the Browns gave him a $10,000 signing bonus and a $25,000 base salary guarantee so the scouts must have seen something they liked despite limited production in college. Last year he transferred to Florida Atlantic where Harrison Bryant also attended college.

A former basketball standout in high school, Mitchell-Paden showed skill and abilities and was offered a football scholarship at NDC. He displays untapped potential but is raw. He needs to redefine his technique and mental awareness more but will work hard. A film junky, Mitchell-Paden has an uphill climb in the tight end room but is definitely a mismatch with linebackers.

Marcus Santos-Silva (6’-6”, 261 pounds)

Santos-Silva is a former college basketball player. He averaged just 4.7 points per game with 4.1 rebounds and a mere 15 minutes per contest for Texas Tech. Those numbers won’t get you into the NBA, so he parlayed an opportunity to get a tryout with the Browns.

The last time he played organized football was his freshman year in high school. The undrafted rookie played power forward for Virginia Commonwealth University for three seasons before transferring to Texas Tech where his hope was that his stats would increase and that NBA scouts would see more of his games.

He started 93 games in college with career numbers of 8.5 points a game, .8 assists per game and 6.4 rebounds. Needless to say, the NBA did not call.

After his final college game, the Texas Tech Assistant Director of Player Development told Santos-Silva that he had received multiple calls from NFL clubs to see if he would be interested in a tryout. His first answer was no, thinking he could catch on with a G-League NBA team and eventually realize his dream. Playing basketball overseas was already ruled out.

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What changed his mind was as a spectator at the football Pro Day at Texas Tech and seeing the tight end play. He realized he was a big-bodied athlete who only needed some tutelage. He then hired The Sports and Entertainment Group as his agent and entered his name into the draft pool three days before the draft.

Browns scout Branden Francis was the catalyst for Santos-Silva coming to Cleveland for a workout after going undrafted. Despite all the NFL calls, the Browns were the only club to ask him to workout. Before the coaching staff allowed him to leave, they signed him to a training camp contract.

He did play tight end in his limited action in high school which may explain why he did not drop a single pass during the workout.

Santos-Silva knows he is a longshot to make the 53-man roster and that his talents are raw, but he has the size, strength, physical traits and long torso and arms needed to play tight end in this league.

“I was just like, ‘Wow,’” Santos-Silva said after being offered a contract. “I honestly thought I was going to go home and they were either going to give me a call or not give me a call. I just didn’t expect things to happen so fast.”

Since being signed as a Browns, he has reached out to TE Mo Alie-Cox of the Indianapolis Colts who was also a college basketball player and is now a fixture on the Colts’ offense.

“I’ve asked him, ‘Hey, what were the biggest struggles for you?’” explained Santos-Silva on “He told me that the thing that would be hard is learning the playbook and learning to block, but once I nail that down, everything else will be good. That’s going to be my main objective when I get there.”

To fullback or not to fullback?

In the past few seasons, Cleveland has sported a fullback with either Andy Janovich or practice squad player Johnny Stanton. Janovich is now gone, but Stanton is still trying to make the final roster as an asset to the run game.

The question is: was the coaching staff not satisfied with Janovich, or is this new scheme one that doesn’t need a fullback any longer? So, will the Browns actually keep a fullback this year?

It is very possible that a tight end could be lined up in any fullback situation when needed instead. If so, a more agile and accurate blocker will need to be retained from the tight end room. This alone may sway the decision of who ultimately the coaching staff will keep from a crowded tight end group.