David Njoku can confidently say he emerged as a better player from the ups and downs he experienced in his first five years in Cleveland.
He endured a winless season. He went through injuries and difficult spells — both with himself and the whole team — of COVID-19. He's coped with learning how to be comfortable with all areas of the tight end position at the NFL level.
He also enjoyed the first playoff season in Cleveland after an 18-year drought. He knows how tight the city embraces a winning football team, and he knows how high he can be regarded in the franchise's history if he continues to grow as a tight end.
Njoku wants to continue putting it all together with the Browns, the team that drafted him in the first round in 2017 with the belief he could become one of the top tight ends in the game. He's shown glimpses of fulfilling that vision throughout the adversity, and the Browns are banking on him becoming even more of a top weapon over the course of his four-year contract extension.
"It was a blessing," Njoku said on an episode of "Best Podcast Available."
"Not many people know the background story of what happened the last few years, but it was a great achievement to reach that level. Now it's only up from here. We have to put in the work, though, double-time."
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From a statistical standpoint, 2018 was Njoku's best season so far — he caught a career-high 56 passes for 639 yards and four touchdowns and was a major contributor as the Browns appeared to turn a corner following a winless 2017 season.
Then, several setbacks happened in 2019. Njoku was on injured reserve from Weeks 3-12 and was inactive for Weeks 14-15. He finished the year with only five catches, 41 receiving yards and one touchdown.
"I just wasn't getting it together," he said. "It was tough mentally more than physically, but God is good. Just had to keep putting in that work first and good things will happen."
Njoku felt his game come back alive in 2020 thanks to the Browns building a 10-win season, one where he contributed in areas that don't always show in the stats. He compiled 19 catches, 213 yards and two touchdowns in 13 games and began to embrace blocking at a new level, which led to higher snap counts and more chances to make plays.
That season ended in the AFC Divisional round, the farthest a Browns season had lasted since 1994. Njoku loved every bit of it, and the feeling of going to the playoffs on a team with the football-rich history the Browns have motivated him to become an even better player for Cleveland.
"I think the most important thing was reminiscing on the past," he said. "Looking back at 2017, obviously we weren't doing as good as we should've been doing, but the fan base was always there, riding with us through thick and thin. I was sitting there like, 'Why am I complaining? Things could be better, but I'm in a good place right now. I've been competing, so why stop now?'
"I just said, 'You know what? I'm going to shut up, and I'm just going to work. I'm going to ignore all the noise and all the distractions, and focus on the team. What can I do to help the team in total?' The stats weren't there. I wasn't doing what I wanted to do at the time, but at a certain point, I started to fall in love with the things I was supposed to do, which was blocking and everything else."
Njoku took another step forward in 2021 with 36 catches for 475 yards and four touchdowns. Even though the Browns didn't return to the playoffs, Njoku was still enjoying the game, the team and the promise of better seasons ahead.
"I love it here," he said in January. "I love it here to the core. I honestly want to be here for the rest of my career … It's our dream to bring a championship here in Cleveland."
The contract extension came next, but with it came another vision from the Browns Njoku knew he must meet.
He's entrenched as the top tight end for an offense looking to ascend to the top ranks of the league with Deshaun Watson at QB. That means more targets, perhaps the highest totals of his career, are coming Njoku's way, and he'll be expected to make the most of them.
"It's a great relationship (with Watson) already," Njoku said. "It's very important that we keep building on that relationship and bring everybody else with us."
Building that relationship with Watson — and continuing to become a reliable, do-it-all tight end — is the next step of Njoku's journey, one that's been built through bumps in the road and emerging from them as a better, more polished player.
Now, the path for Njoku is clear as he looks to become the best version of an NFL player he can possibly be. 2022 will be his sixth NFL season, but it's one where his role on the Browns is as clear as ever, and he can't wait for it to begin.
"I'm just ready to work, man," he said. "Honestly, I just can't wait until Week 1. Throughout all this process, I give God all the glory, and I'm just itching for Week 1."