David Njoku signed his four-year contract extension Wednesday with the Browns, thus starting his quest to meet a higher set of expectations from a team that has watched him grow at tight end over five NFL seasons.
The contract was partially a reward for what Njoku has accomplished since he was drafted 29th overall in 2017 — he's shown his 6-foot-4, 246-pound frame can create big plays when he has the ball. He's developed into a stout run-blocker, too, and met the challenge the Browns gave him two years ago when they sought ways for Njoku to contribute beyond the passing game.
But the deal is also supposed to keep pushing Njoku in the right direction. He's caught 15 touchdowns and 1,754 receiving yards across five seasons and has steadily increased his production in the two years of Kevin Stefanski's coaching regime. The Browns are banking on him to continue that upward trajectory in Cleveland, and Njoku is ready to meet the demand.
"I feel like the only way to go is up from here," Njoku said. "Just keep stacking good days, hard work and perseverance."
The Browns have several reasons to believe Njoku can play some of his best games over the next four seasons.
His quarterback will be Deshaun Watson, whose well-rounded skills are expected to elevate the entire offense. Njoku hasn't played with a quarterback of the caliber of Watson, who has a 67.8 completion percentage and is the most accurate passer in NFL history with a minimum 1,500 pass attempts. If the Browns design their offense to maximize Watson's mobility and throwing abilities, Njoku will certainly benefit.
He's also entrenched as the top tight end on the roster. Njoku is now the most experienced guy at the position and displayed an increasingly consistent catch ability over the last two seasons. His best year 2021, when he led all Browns receivers with 50 or more targets with a career-best 67.9 catch percentage.
He's been durable, too, and has missed only four games over the last two seasons. One of them was because he was on the COVID-19 list.
The elements of Njoku's game are all coming together. The Browns re-worked their pass game this offseason with the idea that Njoku will be a part of it, and they believe he'll thrive with the revamped quarterback play and a bigger role.
"I think there is an evolution that will continue for David the player," Stefanski said. "He's young. I don't know if he physically can grow any more, but his game can grow. That's a conversation I've had with him. I do expect his game to grow, and it's not as simple as saying, 'Hey, we're going to throw more balls to you.' I think his game will grow, and you will see it in the run game and in the pass game, and you will see it kind of throughout."
Njoku has proven before he can quickly develop certain areas of his game.
In 2020, the Browns needed Njoku to become a player who could stay on the field regardless of the play call. Stefanski's playbook featured a high volume of three tight-end formations, and Njoku needed to make improvements as a blocker to be a more prominent player and stay on the field.
So he continuously worked at his technique in practice, and as his blocking skills grew, so did his snap counts. In 2020, Njoku had six games where he played over 50 percent of snaps. In 2021, that number rose to 15.
He's fully embraced the importance of blocking as a necessity for his game and expects to be even better in that area next season.
"I love blocking," he said. "Honestly, I fell in love with it because at a point, it was all that I was really doing, so I had two options: I can either cry about it, or just slam people. I chose to block, and I enjoy it now."
Now, the challenge for Njoku will be to take big steps in all areas of his game. He has an ideal environment to do it with a coaching regime that will enter its third season, a new and talented quarterback set to throw him passes and a depth chart that will showcase him as a featured player.
It's the biggest opportunity of Njoku's career, and they're challenging him to make the most of it.
"I think he's committed to that," Stefanski said. "David wants to get better, and to be 25, I think you have that opportunity to get better."