The Cleveland Browns have had two games this year with a lot of offensive success and then played another two games with a dismal offensive output. This group is definitely a roller coaster.
For the past few years, this unit was strictly a rushing offense with an elite offensive line and a Pro Bowl running back. This year, with the addition of QB Deshaun Watson ready to play an entire season, the offensive strategy was changed somewhat in order to throw the ball more.
That hasn’t happened.
Signed were numerous promising wide receivers and proven pass catchers such as Amari Cooper, a Pro Bowler himself. Running backs Nick Chubb and Jerome Ford were both good pass blockers and had soft hands to help out in the passing attack.
In the tight end room, David Njoku is a former first-round draft pick, Jordan Akins was signed away from the Houston Texans during free agency as a former teammate of Watson, Zaire Mitchell-Paden was inked to a reserve/futures contract, undrafted rookie free agent Thomas Greaney was signed in May, youngster Harrison Bryant was drafted as the Mackey Award winner given out as the best tight end in college football, Miller Forristall and Devin Asiasi were also signed as free agents.
During the week of final cutdowns, Forristall, Mitchell-Paden, and Greaney were released. Asiasi, who was a final cutdown release from the Cincinnati Bengals, and Mitchell-Paden were then signed to the practice squad.
So off into the sunset for the 2023 Browns with the tight end room of Njoku, Akins, and Bryant.
What used to be
Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski traditionally used two tight end formations. On occasion, three would be deployed. This meant the offense needed two very good players and one complimentary athlete.
This year that was set to change. With more receivers on the field, this meant either fewer running backs or tight ends. The design on some plays would feature an empty backfield and one tight end, or devoid of a tight end with a running back present. This meant three or four receivers for each play.
Before, three tight ends were critical for the roster. But now, usually, only one tight end is on the field. And that is just an occasional occurrence.
Njoku (6’-4”, 246 pounds) is the starter. So far this year in four games, his stats are minimal: 16 receptions on 18 targets, 138 yards, zero touchdowns, and five first-down catches.
At one time, he had demanded a trade away from Cleveland.
The numbers this year for Akins (6’-4”, 243 pounds) are three receptions on four targets, 20 yards, zero touchdowns, and one first-down catch.
These paltry numbers continue for Bryant (6’-5”, 230 pounds). He has just three receptions on five targets for seven yards, one touchdown, and one catch for a first down.
For this entire group, that comes to a grand total of 165 yards, one touchdown, and seven catches for first downs. This group was supposed to be counted on for production.
That hasn’t happened either.
Is Njoku no longer a weapon for this offense? If so, why isn’t he implemented in the game plan more? It appears he struggles to get separation and his 8.6 yards per reception this year is the second-lowest of his career. Rarely does he score a touchdown and the fact that he is in his seventh season, he has just 19 total for his career. That computes to 2.7 scores per season.
Oddly enough, Njoku is rarely used in the Red Zone. To be factual, he has very few meaningful plays per game. His best season was 56 receptions for 639 yards and four touchdowns and so far, he has never sniffed the Pro Bowl despite being a talented receiver. Is he in the wrong system?
Akins was signed as another weapon for Watson. Having played with him in Houston, the familiarity was a key component to signing him. When the two were teammates, Watson was tearing up the league and named to three consecutive Pro Bowls. Their success was assumed would translate to this year’s new offensive scheme.
His best season he had 37 catches for 495 yards with five touchdowns. But so far, Akins has just four targets in four games.
When the Browns drafted Bryant in 2020 as the best tight end in college football, there were visions of him becoming a strong TE2 in a system that needed two stud players at that position. But now, he gets few snaps and even fewer targets. The snaps he does get are mainly for blocking to assist the run game. Five targets in four games are nothing to write home about.
If you play fantasy football, Njoku is a roster member of just 21% of teams while Akins is owned by 4% and Bryant 1%. In most leagues, all three can be picked up off the waiver list.
Then there is the money aspect
With so little production from this year’s tight end group, the question looms: Why do the Browns retain three on their roster?
And what are they getting for their money?
Let’s begin with the starter. In May of 2022, Njoku signed a four-year, $56.75 million contract extension. He had his contract restructured this year and will make a grand total of $12.5 million which is $735,294 per game. So far, the Browns have paid Njoku $183,824 per reception and $2.941 million for not scoring touchdowns.
Akins signed a one-year deal worth $1.035 million. He is being paid $345,000 per catch to date.
Bryant’s salary this season is $1.01 million. With grabbing just three passes, that computes to $366,667 per reception or $1.01 million per touchdown catch.
In just four games, there are lots of expectations that aren’t being met by the entire tight end group.
Njoku is ranked 14th in total yards and 28th overall among tight ends. Wasn’t he supposed to be our own George Kittle or Travis Kelce?
Since their salaries are comparable, let’s compare Njoku’s numbers to Kelce’s; who is considered the best tight end in the NFL and is among the league’s best pass catchers regardless of position.
In 2021, Kelce signed his own contract extension worth $57 million. As stated earlier, Njoku’s extension was for $56.75 million. Both are four-year deals. Njoku’s 2023 dead cap hit is $24.175 million. Kelce’s dead cap hit is $19.155 million.
Kelce has been voted to eight consecutive Pro Bowls, named First Team All-Pro four times, selected Second Team All-Pro three years, Two Time Super Bowl champion, and named to the NFL’s 2010s All-Decade Team. He also owns five NFL records for the tight end position including Most Seasons with 1,000+ Receiving Yards by a Tight End (7).
The closest Njoku came to 1,000 receiving yards was in 2018 with 638. He has zero Pro Bowls, zero All-Pro accolades, plus zero NFL records. Njoku has 19 career touchdowns. Kelce scored 12 times in 2022 alone.
Yet, the financial numbers indicate that Njoku is paid the most for producing much less.
When will our guy be like their guy?
But in all of the ways that Kelce has produced, 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 in catching the football. Add the fact that he can’t be counted on to be healthy.
Injury factor and poor production
Njoku is third on the Browns in receiving this year. His Pro Football Focus (PFF) grade is 56.2. Akins and Bryant’s PFF grades are 51.4 and 61.1, respectively.
In the league receiving standings, Njoku is ranked 75th whereas Akins is ranked #247 and Harrison #312.
Njoku has a history of getting hurt. In Week 4 against Baltimore, he had burns associated with social activity but suited up and gained 46 yards on six receptions. Obviously, this was an amazing feat to come in and play hurt and consider him a warrior.
His injury history in the past includes: 2022 - knee strain, high ankle sprain; 2019 – wrist fracture (IR), concussion; 2017 – lower lumbar pull Grade 1.
Akins had a rough time in 2020 with a concussion, a high ankle sprain, and a hamstring issue but other than that, he has been pretty durable. Bryant has been clean since joining the Browns. In college, he suffered a high ankle sprain.
In the yards-after-contact (YAC) category among tight ends, Njoku ranks fourth in the league with 99 yards. The YAC numbers for Akins are 18 yards (ranked #42) with Bryant coming in at three yards (#57).
With league overall rankings just among tight ends, Njoku is ranked #28, Bryant #39, and Akins #53.
Considered to be one of the most important positions to this offense, this group has serious questions that need to be addressed this season.
Is Njoku worth the payday after receiving a king’s ransom? Can Akins finally contribute? Will Bryant ever blossom into the player Cleveland drafted him to be as the John Mackey Award winner?
All great questions that need to be addressed.
State of the Browns’ tight end group so far? Very expensive, and not nearly enough production.