David Njoku is poised to build upon an inconsistent but undeniably promising rookie year.
The Browns tight end was among few bright spots last season and stands to continue shining following a first-year campaign full of highs and lows. Because of that, Cleveland's coaching staff believe big things await the former Miami star.
"I expect to see a huge jump," head coach Hue Jackson said earlier this month as the team finished offseason workouts. "He's very athletic. He can catch and run. He's going to be one of our playmakers."
Indeed, Njoku, one of three fir st-round NFL Draft picks in 2017, is expected to be a versatile weapon in a new-look offense that added a pair of Pro Bowlers, quarterback Tyrod Taylor and wide receiver Jarvis Landry, this past offseason.
This time last year, the uber-athletic Njoku — a national high jump champion in high school who didn't play tight end until college — was adjusting to the rigors and speed of the NFL game. Few positions are as tough for rookies as tight end; blocking defensive ends and outrunning defensive backs, at first, can prove to be a difficult task for even the most promising youngsters.
Njoku, still, was one of Cleveland's top producers last year. He led the Browns with four touchdown catches and was third in receiving yards (386) and receptions (32). While he struggled to demonstrate that ability every single Sunday, there's little doubt Njoku flashed big-time talent that should become consistent in time.
"I think for a young player that plays that kind of position week in and week out of blocking those outside linebackers and defensive ends, you wear down towards the end of the year," Jackson said. "If anything I can say for David, that's what I saw. Just the grind of playing a lot of football, a lot of minutes, that you look back and say, 'Wow, this was tough.'"
The Browns believe he'll be better for it. This past spring, the coaching staff saw significant improvements. "In the pass game, he is a much more refined route-runner than he was. He should be a dominant receiver in the red zone, especially in the higher throws, the back of the end zone and that kind of thing," tight ends coach Greg Seamon said.
"I think that last year, like a lot of new receivers, they get people around them and they tend to reach and feel for who's around them, and end up late to the ball. As they develop and learn, especially if you have the height, length and ability to go up like David does, to just focus on the ball and go up and get it. I see improvement there. He's caught the ball very consistently this spring, and that has been very good. There was some inconsistency a year ago in that area."
Underscoring all of this progress, Seamon said, is the fact that Njoku remains one of the youngest players on the team. Drafted to Cleveland when he was 20 years old, the reality of growing pains are approached with an eye toward the future.
"He left Miami early. In a month, he will be 22-years old. We have to keep in mind that this guy has a long and very, very bright future," Seamon said.
"We expect continued improvement, that can never be an excuse, but it's what he came to us with, with very little experience. He was raw. I like his work ethic. He's a bright young man. He is very proud and wants to do well. I am pleased. I think we are going to see steady improvement from him as he goes through his career."