David Njoku heard the question, looked down and smiled.
The tight end was asked if this would be the year he breaks out and joins the small group of elite tight ends in the NFL. Njoku has been good, but not necessarily elite with the Browns after they selected him in the first round of the 2017 draft.
He’s scored eight touchdowns and has amassed 1,025 receiving yards in his first two years and finished eighth among tight ends last season with 639 receiving yards. That’s not bad for a 23-year-old, but the Browns are hoping Njoku can still tap into the upside they saw after he spent only two seasons on the field at Miami.
Njoku is confident he will, too. So, his response to the question Monday inside the Browns fieldhouse in Berea was blunt.
“I’d say ‘Yes,’” he said with a smile. “I want to be the best tight end I can be, and if I do that, I think I’ll be OK.”
Njoku will be the first to admit that he hasn’t mastered anything as a tight end. He’s shown flashes of promise as both a blocker and receiver, but if Njoku wants to receive more snaps — and more opportunities for big plays — he’ll need to improve most in the trenches.
That will come with a few tweaks in technique. Njoku is 6-foot-4 and has a muscular 246-pound frame, so his body is built to last at the line of scrimmage. Browns tight ends coach John Lilly has worked closely with Njoku on how he can make the most of his massive wingspan, but it’s up to Njoku to show those tweaks work in scrimmage reps.
“He can be a great blocker and be a great point of attack blocker if he wants to be and if I can get him there,” Lilly said. “He has all of that stuff. Whatever we have to do to score points, I do not care.”
Check out photos from the fifth day of Browns Camp by team photographer Matt Starkey
But Njoku thinks they will make him an even better blocker when the regular season starts.
“(To call them) ‘beasts,’ I’d say, is an understatement,” Njoku said. “They’re truly something out of this world, so I’m glad they’re on our side.”
Blocking, however, isn’t Njoku’s favorite thing to do on the field. That’s catching touchdowns, which are what Njoku will need most to make his breakout season possible. He’s been a frequent red zone target from quarterback Baker Mayfield in training camp so far, and he ended Friday’s practice with his signature “chief slam” celebration after catching a touchdown pass in traffic.
But improving his blocking ability must come first for Njoku. He’ll be on the field more if he can beef up the offensive line, too, and the touchdowns will follow naturally.
“I hope I catch as many touchdowns as possible,” Njoku said. “Everyone loves to catch touchdowns, but I’m willing to do the dirty work, too.”
When he masters the dirty work, Njoku won’t be far from that “elite” status, and with his young age, he has plenty of time to get there.