BEREA — Rookie tight end David Njoku was being whisked away for a different interview and wondered about the dress code.
“Do I have to wear a shirt?” he asked.
He was told yes.
“Was that a dumb question?” he asked.
Not with his physique.
Njoku is 6-foot-4, 246 pounds of muscle. He was made for the “crop top” jersey that was banned by the NCAA and showed off his six- (or eight-) pack throughout training camp.
— Chief David Njoku (@David_Njoku80) August 5, 2017
He isn’t just a chiseled body. He played his best game Sunday in the 19-10 loss to the Chargers with four catches for 74 yards, including a 28-yarder to set the Browns’ record for rookie tight ends with a team-high four receiving touchdowns.
He’s second on the team with 28 catches and third with 332 receiving yards.
“I think I have taken big steps,” Njoku said Wednesday of his rookie season. “The game has slowed down more, that is for sure. It is getting a lot easier reading defenses or certain techniques.”
He’s far from satisfied.
“I’m not really proud of anything,” he said. “I feel like I haven’t really reached my full potential yet. I’m still working. I’ve just got to work on every aspect of my game to be the best I can be.”
He turned 21 in July and is the youngest player on the league’s youngest roster. The improvement through 12 games provides reason for optimism in a season without a win.
“He’s got an opportunity to be really good if he keeps working at it,” coach Hue Jackson said. “He’s done a lot of good things, and there’s a lot more plays that we feel like he’s left out there and that we’ve left out there. So if he’ll keep growing and keep working at it, a year from now, like I’ve said about a lot of these young guys, they’re going to be a lot better.”
The Chargers game was a perfect example of Njoku’s playmaking ability and unrealized potential. The touchdown came down the left seam, and he added a 33-yarder from the 4-yard line in the fourth quarter on a post from the left. But he couldn’t hang on to another seam route in tight coverage in the first quarter, then came down out of bounds after making an acrobatic catch on a back-shoulder throw.
“I did some good things, but I also left some plays that I wish I had back,” he said.
The Browns gave the Green Bay Packers, who visit FirstEnergy Stadium on Sunday, a fourth-round draft pick to move up four spots to No. 29 to ensure they landed Njoku and his immense athletic ability. He was a high school national champion in the high jump with a personal best of 7-1.
“David’s got so much potential,” tight end Randall Telfer said earlier this season. “He’s going to be one of the huge playmakers in this NFL. He already is. He’s doing a lot of good things for us. He’s only going to go up.
“I haven’t seen someone at the tight end position that has his athletic ability in awhile. He can do it all. He can jump. Blazing speed. Quick change of direction.”
Telfer mentioned Patriots Pro Bowler Rob Gronkowski in the description. Njoku obviously has a long way to go to reach the level of Gronkowski, who’s had three 1,000-yard seasons. The gap in blocking is also huge.
Njoku was a receiver before making the switch to tight end while at the University of Miami. He missed a key pass protection against the Lions that resulted in quarterback DeShone Kizer leaving the game with bruised ribs, but it’s run blocking that presents the greatest challenge.
“It’s tough for these young guys that come in the league,” Jackson said. “We put them out there to play and they’re playing against these old men playing defensive end that are 290 pounds, some of them 300 pounds. So he’s finding out guys are bigger than him, as tall as he is, weigh more than he does and some of them just as athletic as he is, so he’s had to learn how to fight that. Sometimes he’s giving away 40 pounds, sometimes 50 pounds, and he’s had to learn different techniques on how to block those guys and sometimes just to get a stalemate.
“In order to play up here in the National Football League and in our system, that’s something we require. So that’s a skill that we’re still developing with him.”
Njoku has been part of a rotation with Telfer and Seth DeValve and will never be a full-time player until he improves as a run blocker, but there have been signs of growth.
“His blocking has improved,” left guard Joel Bitonio said. “He’s had some struggles there, but he’s working on getting his hands inside, he’s doing a better job and I think to be a truly dynamic tight end, some of the greats, they can block and catch, and he’s becoming a real dual threat out there.”
When Njoku missed the block that injured Kizer, he texted an apology to his good friend. He remained angry and vowed to take it out on the next opponent.
“He’s athletic, he’s strong and he wants to be right,” Bitonio said. “When you see guys that are kind of whatever about certain things, that’s not a good sign, but the way he’s worked and played and continued to try to improve and correct those mistakes has shown a lot from him.”