What can be expected from David Njoku for the rest of the season?

(AP Photo/Ron Schwane)

Who exactly are the 2018 Cleveland Browns? That question is still yet to be answered through seven games this season. The defense has played well above average and the offense is yet to find an identity.

The offense was beginning to find a groove until the Browns abruptly traded Carlos Hyde to the Jacksonville Jaguars for a fifth-round pick. Now, it seems like the Browns are shuffling to get the right amount of touches for Nick Chubb and Duke Johnson.

Before the Hyde trade, Todd Haley seemed to not have an answer on how they wanted to get Chubb and Johnson involved. When the Browns signed Hyde, it was clear that he was just going to be on the team for the 2018 season, despite signing a contract for three years. That idea became concrete once the Browns extended Johnson and drafted Chubb with the 35th pick.

It is fair to say that the Browns have yet to figure out how to make Jarvis Landry a complete NFL receiver. Antonio Callaway, on the other hand, seems to have the rookie yips, as he is stepped into an important role as the team’s number two receiver.

The biggest question mark of them all is David Njoku. Let’s make one thing clear, this is not a bad thing. The Browns truly do not know what they have in the second year tight end, as he has shown glimpses of improving as the season goes on.

In his rookie season, Njoku had below average production. He was targeted 60 times, hauling in 32 receptions for 386 receiving yards and four touchdowns. He had a drop percentage of 7.0, which was actually middle of the pack among all tight ends in the NFL. For comparison sake, Travis Kelce (7.4%), Jimmy Graham (10.3%), and Austin Hooper (10.5%) all finished with worse drop rates than Njoku in 2017.

Heading into this season, I said that it should be expected that Njoku leads the team in receiving touchdowns for the 2018 season. As of right now, that stands true. Njoku and Landry are tied for the lead with two touchdowns this year. Through seven games, Njoku has 52 targets, 31 receptions, and two touchdowns this season. His targets and receptions in 2018 nearly replicate last year’s totals in 2017 and that means there is progress. However, he has recorded 89 fewer yards on one extra reception compared to last year.

So what can exactly be expected from Njoku for the rest of the season?

Well, Njoku is fifth in the NFL in targets among tight ends and seventh in receptions. When the Browns drafted Njoku in the first round, they likely imagined him being in this category with Zach Ertz, Kelce, Hooper, etc. He is clearly becoming one of the most valuable assets to the offense, hopefully continuing to develop to a true top pass catcher in the NFL.

Despite the numbers, Pro Football Focus has Njoku graded as their 69th worst tight end on the NFL with an offensive grade of 57.2. In addition, his receiving grade of 54.3 is 78th worst. Unfortunately, it only gets worse as you dig deeper into his numbers. His drop grade of 29.4 is the worst in the NFL among all tight ends with 15 or more receptions; among pass catchers in general, the only players worst than Njoku are Antonio Callaway and Michael Crabtree. Njoku’s drop percentage backs up his poor drop grade. He has dropped 17.5 percent of his passes which is worst in the NFL among tight ends with 15 or more receptions.  

For a rookie quarterback, a tight end is his best friend. Even despite his continues drops, Baker Mayfield continues to trust Njoku. Following a brutal drop on third down early against the Buccaneers, Mayfield found Njoku in the corner of the end zone for a touchdown later in the game.

There has been plenty of ups and downs from the Browns over the last two seasons, and Njoku has certainly had plenty of ups and downs as well. He cannot yet be declared one of the NFL’s best and he cannot yet be declared a bust. What Njoku is right now is a middle of the pack tight end who continues to improve.

In this week against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Njoku has a perfect opportunity to start shifting his status more towards being a Pro Bowl pass catcher. In terms of fantasy football, the Steelers have allowed the third most points against tight ends this season. The only two teams in front of the Steelers are the Ravens and Bengals. Njoku finished with six receptions for 69 yards against the Ravens. In Week 1 against the Steelers, he only recorded three receptions for 13-yards.

With a crucial game against the Steelers this week, it is crucial that Njoku becomes a big reason why the Browns potentially win on Sunday, and not the reason they don’t.