INDIANAPOLIS — The tight end position for the Browns won’t look the same in 2020.
David Njoku better look a lot different if he hopes to stick around.
New general manager Andrew Berry and new coach Kevin Stefanski touted Njoku’s talent and sound ready to give him the chance to salvage his career. But Stefanski put the onus squarely on Njoku.
“There’s an obvious skill set there,” Stefanski said Tuesday at the scouting combine. “There’s a reason he was drafted that high. You can see it just in his physical ability.
“And it’s a big year for David. I’ve explained that to him. He knows that and a lot of that is going to be up to him and the amount of work he puts into this. And we have big plans for him but it’s about, for him, coming back in the building and working and then ultimately being able to see if we can utilize him in a role that can take advantage of some of his skill set.”
The transformation of the tight end group began last week when Berry cut Demetrius Harris, who started six games, played 53 percent of the snaps and caught three touchdowns in 2019. Stefanski runs an offense reliant on tight ends, often using two at a time, which requires an upgrade of the roster, which includes the largely unproven Ricky Seals-Jones, Pharaoh Brown and Stephen Carlson.
If Njoku, 23, can live up to his potential and draft status — he was the No. 29 pick in 2017 — that would answer a huge question on offense. But Njoku has been inconsistent, especially catching the ball, and couldn’t build on the 56 catches, 639 yards and four touchdowns he had in 2018. He suffered a broken wrist in Week 2 last season, missed 10 games, then was a healthy scratch for two of the last three games.
In four games he caught five passes for 41 yards and a touchdown.
“David didn’t quite have the year that he anticipated this past fall, but we still view David as a talented pass catcher and a guy that we expect to take a step forward in this upcoming year,” Berry said.
He has a decision to make over the next couple of months whether to pick up the fifth-year option for 2021 on the rookie contracts of Njoku and defensive end Myles Garrett, who was the No. 1 pick. Garrett seems automatic and Njoku not so much, but Berry sounded as if Njoku will stay.
“I wouldn’t disclose any of those kind of business decisions in this setting, but it’s safe to say we view both those guys as very, very talented members of our roster and we look forward to seeing what they’re going to do over the next few years,” Berry said.
Tight ends were a large part of the discussion on Day 1 of the combine, as the draft prospects spoke to the media. The Browns will consider options in free agency (Hunter Henry, Austin Hooper) and the draft, which is considered strong in tight ends, likely starting in the second round.
Notre Dame’s Cole Kmet, Washington’s Hunter Bryant, Vanderbilt’s Jared Pinkney and Dayton’s Adam Trautman are among the top names and could be on Cleveland’s radar in the second or third rounds (Nos. 42, 74 and 90).
Trautman (6-foot-5, 255 pounds) is expected to be the first player from Dayton drafted since the 1970s. He said he emailed bigger, FBS schools coming out of high school but never got a response.
“Just the amount of time and blood, sweat and tears I put into that program and the amount of love I have for that program, I wouldn’t change a thing about where I went to school,” he said. “It would mean the absolute world to me (to end the drought).”
Stefanski seeks to create mismatches with his tight ends.
“I just think there’s so many different ways you can attack a defense when you have versatility. Certainly the tight end position gives you some versatility,” he said. “We kind of look at it as there’s some in-line, true, what we’ll call Y tight ends, those are your bigger type guys that are on the line of scrimmage. Then our F tight ends, which have to move around the formation, line up in different spots and do a bunch of different jobs.
“I always try to think of it from the defensive coordinator’s perspective, what’s going to make life hard on them, and that would be a guy that you can move around the formation.”
Is Njoku a Y or an F?
“I think he really could be both, and there are guys that can kind of bounce back and forth and you can utilize in different roles,” Stefanski said. “But I really want to get around him and then see him up close in person before we make a determination on him.”
A year ago at the combine, then-GM John Dorsey called out Njoku as a poor blocker. This year Njoku was challenged to prove himself to the new regime.
The clock could be ticking on his Browns career.