Drafted one spot before TJ Watt, David Njoku finally gives Browns an electric performance

Steve Doerschuk
The Repository

Few complained on Draft Day 2017 that the Browns were mistaken to take tight end David Njoku at No. 29 overall, or that they should have picked edge rusher T.J. Watt, who went to Pittsburgh at No. 30.

Cleveland already had spent the No. 1 overall pick on Myles Garrett. The offense needed help. Why not take Njoku, viewed as one of the best tight ends in a strong draft at that position?

Watt became a major star. Njoku became a disappointment.

Njoku made some late headway, enough to get the Browns to pick up his fifth-year option keeping him on the team for 2021. 

Cleveland Browns tight end David Njoku (85) reacts after making a catch during the first half of an NFL football game against the Los Angeles Chargers Sunday, Oct. 10, 2021, in Inglewood, Calif. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

On Sunday, he looked like a star, albeit in a 47-42 loss to the Chargers. He caught seven passes for 149 yards, including a 71-yard touchdown that gave the Browns a 35-28 lead. 

"We have a very interesting offense," Njoku said. "If the defense is trying to take things away, we have other offenses to use. Today, I guess, was my day."

The 6-foot-4, 250-pound Njoku is a freakish athlete who high jumped 7-foot-1 as a track and field star and did enough as a Miami Hurricanes football player to attract notice as a 20-year-old making himself available for the draft.

He had a nondescript rookie year for an 0-16 Browns team, broke through for 56 catches on a 7-8-1 team in 2018, then fell off the map. He seemed on his way out when the 2020 Browns signed free agent Austin Hooper and drafted Harrison Bryant. 

Cleveland Browns tight end David Njoku (85) blocks on Los Angeles Chargers safety Nasir Adderley (24) during the first half of an NFL football game Sunday, Oct. 10, 2021, in Inglewood, Calif. (AP Photo/Kevork Djansezian)

One of the reasons the Browns put up a good fight at Kansas City in last year's playoffs, though, was a four-catch, 59-yard contribution from Njoku.

Even without his long TD catch that provided a fourth-quarter lead, it would have been among a handful of his best games.

Through four games this season, he had seven catches for 111 yards. Then he went off against the Chargers. The biggest receiving producers other than him Sunday were Donovan Peoples-Jones (five catches, 70 yards) and Rashard Higgins (three catches, 29 yards).

The touchdown catch came immediately after the Chargers took a 28-27 fourth-quarter lead.

Browns tight end David Njoku runs ahead of Chargers cornerback Michael Davis for a 71-yard touchdown catch during the second half, Oct. 10, 2021, in Inglewood, Calif. (Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports)

"This game is so fast, you have to react quickly," Njoku said. "After I broke a tackle, I just did what I could and took it to the house."

Njoku caught all seven passes on which he was targeted. Neither of the other tight ends, Hooper or Harrison, was targeted with a pass.

Njoku established himself as a threat for the next game, against the Cardinals in Cleveland, and beyond.

It will be interesting to see how his growing bond with Baker Mayfield continues to develop.

Cleveland Browns tight end David Njoku (85) runs past Los Angeles Chargers free safety Derwin James (33) after a catch during the first half of an NFL football game Sunday, Oct. 10, 2021, in Inglewood, Calif. (AP Photo/Kevork Djansezian)

"Baker is able to extend plays with his feet, and he's very intelligent when it comes to finding open receivers," Njoku said.

Njoku's 149 receiving yards are the third most by a tight end in Browns history. The last tight end with more catches in a game was Gary Barnidge in a win at Baltimore in 2015. Hall of Famer Ozzie Newsome topped 149 just once.

Njoku's day was set up in part by the rushing of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, who combined for 222 rushing yards on 33 carries.

"Those two are superb at what they do," Njoku said. "It's a blessing they had a great game, but we didn't reach our end goal. It's back to work, see what we messed up on, and keep moving."

Reach Steve at steve.doerschuk@cantonrep.com

On Twitter: @sdoerschukREP