The Cleveland Browns weren’t kidding around when they said two weeks ago that keeping tight end David Njoku in orange for many years to come was a top priority.
For many on Monday, the news that of all players in the NFL, it was Njoku who was the first to receive the franchise tag from his team was a head-scratcher. Njoku is certainly no Davante Adams, who also got a franchise tag from the Green Bay Packers. Njoku is no J.C. Jackson, either, and he didn’t get the expected tag from the Patriots.
So why an oft-injured tight end who has failed to live up to expectations after five years in the league, and with another more-accomplished tight end in Austin Hooper already on the roster.
It all goes back two weeks, when a report out of Cleveland stated rather emphatically that despite all appearances, Njoku was the long-term choice at tight end for the Browns. Talks were underway on a multi-year deal to keep Njoku in Cleveland for years to come.
Monday’s application of the franchise tag only cemented the Browns’ resolve to get a deal done.
With the franchise tag in place, a four-month exclusive negotiating window has opened
By applying the franchise tag on Njoku Monday, the tight end is guaranteed no worse than playing the 2022 season on a one-year, $10.9 million contract, the standard amount for a franchised tight end. Njoku, 25, had just completed his five-year rookie contract, and absent the franchise tag, would have become an unrestricted free agent next week.
But as Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported on Feb. 27, the Browns are preparing to offer a multi-year deal in the “double-digit millions.”
“[The Browns have] been talking to his agents for months, and are poised to try to get a deal done before or during the legal tampering period March 14-16,” Cabot wrote. “Njoku has said he wants to finish his career here, and is completely bought in.”
NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero reported this week on “NFL NOW” that the Browns have had an offer on the table for Njoku that pays in the $13 million per year range,
The Browns obviously determined that the deal would not be struck before free agency begins, and moved to ensure two things by applying the franchise tag: He avoids free agency for the 2022 cycle and the team now has until July 15 to work out a long-term deal, or Njoku plays the season on the one-year deal.
The Browns believe a healthy Njoku has the potential to be a star
Njoku seemed destined to be the main tight end on the Browns from the time he came into the league from the University of Miami in 2017. Njoku started five games as a rookie and caught 32 passes for 382 yards and four touchdowns, then had his best season in Baker Mayfield’s rookie year of 2018, with 56 receptions for 639 yards and another four touchdowns over 14 starts.
But his career has taken a backwards turn since. Injuries limited Njoku to four games in 2019 and he had 55 catches combined over the past two seasons. But despite the presence of Hooper, Njoku played in 16 of 17 games in 2021 and started 11 as his production began to steadily increase again.
Much of Njoku’s struggles this past season were part of an overall backsliding of the passing game with Mayfield playing injured and struggling with his overall game. Mayfield had shoulder surgery in January and the team expects him to regain his form in 2022, which should naturally elevate the passing game as a whole.
What role, if any, does Hooper still have in Cleveland?
Once the Browns applied the franchise tag on Njoku, it seemed to many tha Hooper’s days in Cleveland were numbered, given that the former Atlanta Falcons tight end, entering the third year of a four-year deal, was no longer compatible with Njoku at $9.5 million next season.
But head coach Kevin Stefanski wants to run two tight-end sets and find ways to get both open underneath as pass-catchers. To that end, the team must resolve the contract issues one way or another with Jarvis Landry and then use free agency or 2022 NFL Draft picks to find at least a big-play receiver to stretch the field and give Njoku and Hooper room to operate.
Stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference