If David Njoku is going to become one of the upper-echelon tight ends in the NFL, there are several reasons to believe the time for him to truly ascend is upon us.
Njoku speaks like a man who knows the planets have aligned for him because of the upgrades Browns General Manager John Dorsey has made this offseason on offense.
After Dorsey pulled off a trade in March to acquire superstar wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., Njoku's initial reaction to the blockbuster deal during an NFL Network appearance was as follows: "This is huge for me, really."
Njoku certainly isn't the only Browns player who stands to benefit from the arrivals of Beckham and running back Kareem Hunt, another elite playmaker, one who'll miss the first half of the season due to an NFL suspension.
Still, the point is defenses will likely need to worry about Beckham, receiver Jarvis Landry, running back Nick Chubb, Hunt and perhaps receiver Antonio Callaway before turning their attention to Njoku, a 2017 first-round draft pick (No. 29 overall) from the University of Miami.
Njoku, 22, has shown great potential in bursts, but he must become more consistent with his hands and run blocking to capitalize on his opportunities in this offense controlled by quarterback Baker Mayfield.
Those will be areas of focus for Njoku in what he should approach as a crucial training camp, which opens July 25.
As a rookie in 2017, Njoku caught 32 passes for 386 yards and four touchdowns. Last season, he caught 56 passes for 639 yards and four TDs. Also in 2018, he tied for 27th among 70 qualifying tight ends in ProFootballFocus.com's grades. According to PFF, Njoku gained nearly half of his yardage after the catch. He avoided 10 tackles after the catch, third-best at his position.
The athletic skills Njoku possesses are obvious, though he has yet to put everything together on the field. In his third season, he's due to do just that and break out.
This isn't a contract year for Njoku, but it's an important one.
The period for teams to exercise the fifth-year options in the rookie contracts of 2017 first-round choices will run Dec. 30 through May 4. Should Dorsey pick up Njoku's option, he'll remain under contract through the 2021 season. But if Njoku proves to be underwhelming in 2019, Dorsey could decline the fifth-year option and put the tight end on track for unrestricted free agency after the 2020 season.
Remember, Njoku is an endangered species with the Browns because former head of football operations Sashi Brown drafted him. Of the 24 players Brown selected in 2016 and 2017, only six remain with the team.
Tight end Seth DeValve is another Brown pick. Unlike Njoku, DeValve figures to find himself in a real fight for a roster spot this summer.
A fourth-round selection (No. 138 overall) out of Princeton University in 2016, DeValve played just 98 of the offense’s 1,091 snaps (9 percent) last season compared with Njoku’s 871 snaps (79.84 percent) and Darren Fells’ 420 snaps (38.5 percent).
In March, Dorsey cut Fells and signed former Kansas City Chiefs backup tight end Demetrius Harris as an unrestricted free agent to a two-year, $6 million contract, which includes $3.25 million guaranteed. When Dorsey was the GM of the Chiefs, he signed Harris as an undrafted free agent out of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where Harris played basketball. Dorsey has said he views Harris as a No. 2 tight end and core special teams player in Cleveland.
So, at best, DeValve is third on the depth chart after compiling 48 catches for 596 yards and four touchdowns in three seasons. Another Princeton product, undrafted rookie Stephen Carlson, could emerge as DeValve's main competition, with Pharaoh Brown and Orson Charles, primarily a fullback last season, on the periphery.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com. Read his Browns coverage at www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ByNateUlrich and on Facebook www.facebook.com/abj.sports.