I was at tight end David Njoku’s pro day at the University of Miami back in 2017. Throughout the day, Njoku had an impressive 40-inch vertical jump and followed it up with a 10-foot, 11-inch broad jump, then, by my watch, ran 4.62 and 4.56 in the 40-yard dash.
As one of the most athletically gifted players in the entire draft class, I thought for sure the 6-foot-4, 246-pound Njoku would be a first-round pick and a future star in the NFL at a position (tight end) that was growing in both emphasis and creativity.
The first part came true, as Njoku was selected No. 29 overall by the Cleveland Browns in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft.
The second part, well, we’re still waiting.
As it does for many rookies, Njoku’s career started off slow. In his first season with the Browns, Njoku started five out of his 16 games played, saw 60 targets, brought in 32 catches, and recorded 386 yards with four touchdowns. All in all, not bad. His second season was even better, as Njoku started in 14 of his 16 games played and increased his totals to 80 targets, 56 receptions, 639 yards, and another four touchdowns.
His future looked bright, and it looked like Njoku was on his way to a strong career in Cleveland.
However, in Week 2 of 2019, Njoku suffered both a broken wrist and concussion on a single play that kept him out until December. He finished the season playing in just four games with one start.
Though the Browns picked up Njoku’s fifth-year option, that didn’t stop new head coach Kevin Stefanski from convincing his front office to spend big bucks to bring in free agent Austin Hooper. Hooper was coming off a season as a member of the Atlanta Falcons in which he saw nearly 100 targets (97, to be exact), hauled in 75 receptions, and recorded 787 yards with six touchdowns.
But this story really starts here, as the Browns weren’t done bulking up their tight end room after the Hooper signing. Following that addition, they then drafted FAU’s top playmaker from 2019, tight end Harrison Bryant, in the fourth round.
Njoku then saw the writing on the wall, and had seen enough, and recently asked for a trade.
So, as this is a draft-centric site, Njoku’s trade demand now begs the question: if Njoku is traded, what could Bryant’s workload look like in 2020?
Bryant is no stranger to the spotlight of a game plan. He was second on the team in receiving yards as a junior at FAU with 662 receiving yards in 2018, and was the team’s leading receiver in 2019 with 1,004 receiving yards on the season.
Lucky for Bryant—and sort of a bummer for Njoku—Stefanski is all about utilizing two tight ends. As the offensive coordinator for the Minnesota Vikings in 2019, Stefanski ran 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends) 34 percent of the time, which was the second-highest frequency in the NFL behind only the Philadelphia Eagles.
Stefanski had two tight ends he relied on: veteran Kyle Rudolph and rookie Irv Smith Jr. Rudolph started all 16 games as the TE1 for the Vikings, but the snap counts between him and the “backup” Smith were not too far off. In 2019, Rudolph played 793 offensive snaps (77.4 percent of the total offensive snaps) while Smith played 612 (59.7 percent of the total offensive snaps). Outside of the offensive line and quarterback, no player on offense had more snaps than Rudolph, and only wide receiver Stefon Diggs had more than Smith.
As for their production in the passing game, those numbers are even more similar. Rudolph saw 48 targets, which was just one more than Smith’s 47. Rudolph hauled in 39 passes, just three more than Smith’s 36. And finally, Rudolph had 367 receiving yards to Smith’s 311. The biggest difference between the two was in receiving touchdowns, as Rudolph had six and Smith just had two.
All of that to say, according to what we know about Stefanski, there is plenty of room for two tight ends to thrive in his preferred system, and Bryant could be an ideal player in the Smith role.
As for the body types, Bryant came into the NFL Scouting Combine at 6-foot-5 and 243 pounds, while Smith came in at 6-foot-2.5 and 242 pounds. While Rudolph played most of the in-line duties for the Vikings, Smith was used as either a secondary tight end or a big receiver.
When you’re a tight end lined up at receiver, it’s usually because you move pretty well for your size, but there’s still a good chance that you’re not as flexible or as quick as a typical wide out, so you’re most likely naturally limited in the routes you can run. When tight ends are in the slot, owning the post route is a great way to have success.
As a tight end, where you might be sacrificing speed, you can make up for in size. If you are a nuanced post-route-runner, you can often use your body to shield defenders much smaller than you. This is useful at intermediate and deep levels of the field, both between the numbers and in the red zone. As shown above, it is something Smith was asked to do, and is something Bryant is capable of.
Speaking of tight ends in space, both Smith and Bryant are capable of manipulating defenders from the slot and to the sideline. There are plenty of tight ends who do not have the speed or route-running ability to maximize the amount of space between them and the sideline when lined up in the slot.
As seen in the clip above, though the offensive plays were slightly different, the end goal was to get a smaller defender caught in space against a bigger target. It worked and both Smith and Bryant delivered.
The final way I could see Bryant being used in a Smith-like role is with backfield creativity. There were a handful of plays I found from 2019 where Smith was lined up behind the line of scrimmage as a wing player, but the one above was his most successful from that look. As you can see in the clip below it, Bryant was successful in 2019 from a similar look.
That’s the kind of backfield creativity you can have with these two off play-action, as they are around the same build with the same skill sets.
If Njoku gets his wish and is traded before training camp, Bryant should have a role to contribute in the offense right away, even as the TE2, at best.