Four-question Tuesday heading into Week 4.
Let's do it.
Why is David Njoku not starting? — Justin K., Huron
Njoku has started the past two games while playing the second-most snaps of the Browns' three tight ends, trailing Austin Hooper by just a handful. This is a significant increase in the playing time Njoku saw in 2020, and it's a reflection of how the coaching staff and his teammates have seen major growth from the fifth-year tight end.
"His practice habits, I think, are a lot better than they were last year," offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt said. "Understanding the role he is playing. I think David could be a dominant player at the tight end position, both in the run game and the pass game. I think he sees that now, and he is understanding how we are going to use him and help him be better."
Njoku is second on the team with five receptions for 94 yards. His average of 18.8 yards per catch is also second on the team — not a typical ranking for a tight end, by any means. Njoku's ability to make plays 15 to 20 yards down the field provides a unique threat for opposing defenses, which typically need to worry about tight ends within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage.
Njoku's average yards per catch likely will drop at some point, but he's playing within an offense that appears greatly suited to maximize his best strengths.
"David is a big player," coach Kevin Stefanski said. "He has speed at that size where it allows him to create separation, but even if he does not create separation, I think with our tight ends, they can create vertical separation with how they can go get the ball."
The Browns are using their three tight ends at a very high level through the first three weeks. Who is or isn't starting is arbitrary. Njoku and Hooper are getting starter-level snaps and Harrison Bryant is playing more than half. And the best part about it? All three, especially Njoku, are playing at a high level.
"I just think he is so locked in on the game plan and trying to execute exactly what his job is each and every play," QB Baker Mayfield said earlier this month. "I think the steps he has taken in the run game have been huge for him and obviously for us in the run game, as well. That separates him because then guys are trying to put linebackers and safeties down in the box with him, and he is able to run by them in the pass game."
Through three weeks, this hasn't been a typical Minnesota defense, but the unit delivered its best performance of the season in the Vikings' Week 3 victory over the Seahawks. The Vikings really put the clamps down in the second half, when they blanked Seattle while the offense drained the clock with multiple time-consuming possessions. Seattle ran just 19 plays — only four in Vikings territory — in the second half.
Minnesota ranks in the top five in the NFL in sacks with 10, but the unit has struggled a bit against the pass. The Vikings rank 27th in the NFL in pass defense, allowing 290.3 yards per game. They've had a particularly tough time against wide receivers and have allowed one to go over 100 yards in each of their first three games. The Browns have yet to have any player go over 100 yards in a game this season but are spreading the wealth with 10 players carrying between 51-104 receiving yards into Sunday's game.
From an offense standpoint, I'm most intrigued by whoever gets the assignment of blocking Danielle Hunter, whether it be Jack Conklin or Jedrick Wills Jr. Hunter has been his usual game-wrecking self this season and leads the Vikings with four sacks. The Browns O-line will be looking to bounce back from allowing five sacks against the Bears, who brought constant pressure on Mayfield throughout the game.
"We were not perfect," G Wyatt Teller said. "We need to get back into the lab and make sure that what the issues were that we were seeing and fix those, if that is communication or if that is setting a certain way."
Defensively, my focus will be on the Browns' CBs, who will be tasked with slowing down the one-two punch of Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson. Thielen is tied for second in the NFL with four touchdown catches while Jefferson is 11th in receiving yards with 254. It's unclear if Greg Newsome II (calf) will be available for the game, but the Browns are in good hands with his backup, Greedy Williams.
"He would definitely be ready if need be," Stefanski said.
Owusu-Koramoah has already started two of the Browns' three games this season and he played the second-most snaps of any LB in Sunday's win over the Bears. In this most recent game, Owusu-Koramoah was starting in place of Sione Takitaki, who is dealing with a hamstring injury. Whether he's starting or not, the Browns have found ways to work him into the game, and his latest effort was by far the best. He’s up for NFL Rookie of the Week after posting a half-sack, two passes defensed and four tackles in a game that saw him seemingly wherever the ball was.
The Browns have purposely worked Owusu-Koramoah into the mix in a methodical fashion. They don't want him to lose his best trait — playing fast — because he's thinking too much. On Sunday, he certainly looked like one of the fastest players on the field.
"He played fast," Stefanski said. "I really thought his ball disruption was really good."