David Njoku felt he improved in several areas in his fifth NFL season, but the growth didn't extinguish the disappointment he felt after playing in the final game of the year.
Njoku, a 2017 first-round pick, delivered one of his best seasons in 2021 with 36 catches for 475 yards and four touchdowns. It's the most production he built in a year since he totaled over 600 yards and scored four touchdowns in 2018, and it came as a result of Njoku staying healthy and taking on several roles as a tight end in head coach Kevin Stefanski's offense.
But Njoku didn't think his work was good enough. Not when the Browns went 8-9 and missed a chance to go to the playoffs for the second consecutive season. That's what will be on his mind the most as he heads into perhaps his biggest offseason yet.
"Looking back and reflecting, obviously, we left a lot on the field, and I want to take personal blame for some of that," he said. "I feel like I could've done more. We all feel like we could've done more. We have to just turn to the next chapter and get back to work."
While the results didn't always go how Njoku or the Browns expected before the season, he certainly did his part to try to elevate the offense to the level they all believed they could reach.
The Browns finished 18th in the NFL in total offense, but it wasn't for a lack of effectiveness on Njoku's part.
He was first among the Browns' top-five most-used receivers with a 67.9 percent catch rate, accumulated by catching 36 of 53 targets. The percentage was Njoku's highest of his career, as was his 13.2 yards per reception. He was the receiver for the Browns' longest play of the season, too — a 71-yard touchdown in Week 5 where he caught a short pass, knocked down a defender and sprinted over 50 yards to the end zone without another defender touching him.
The play highlighted everything Njoku brings to the offense. At 6-foot-4 and 246 pounds, he's always one of the biggest skill position guys on the field, and he uses it to not only stretch big gains from passes but also generate blocks in the run game.
The latter trait has steadily progressed in each of the last two seasons from the perspective of offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt.
"I like David and the way he played this year," Van Pelt said. "He was productive for us and explosive in the pass game. He's very good at the point of attack in the run game. That's tough to find in tight ends. He did it at a high level."
Njoku is entering the end of his rookie deal, which extended from four to five years after the Browns exercised his fifth-year option in April 2020. He'll become an unrestricted free agent in March without a new deal, but Njoku expressed a clear desire to stay in Cleveland long-term.
"I love it here," he said. "I love it here to the core. I honestly want to be here for the rest of my career."
Those desires have been amplified from Njoku's itch to give the Browns better results in 2022. He'll never forget the joys of being with Cleveland when it cracked its first playoff berth in 18 years in 2020, and he'll never forget the pain of exiting the playoffs two weeks later when the Browns lost to the Chiefs. That pain was evident in the seconds after the loss in Kansas City, when Njoku crouched down in emotion on the sidelines.
Ever since that game, however, Njoku has constantly expressed his desire to take the Browns back to the playoffs. Falling short of that goal in 2021 has driven that desire to an even higher level.
"It's our dream to bring a championship here in Cleveland," he said. "There's no question that we have unfinished business. It's a tough pill to swallow right now because we know how good we were on the roster, and we knew the talent that we had, but we just couldn't put it all together for whatever reason. Reflect, evaluate ourselves and our team and figure out what we can do to put our best foot forward in the upcoming future."
Njoku wants to bring the Browns back to the playoffs next season with all his teammates who share that same strong passion. The empty feeling they all left with after the year isn't going to go away, and it's going to fuel Njoku to grow even more as he enters his sixth season.
"It's a lot of blood, sweat and tears that was put into these last few years," he said. "We just have to keep working. I'm just going to go back to the drawing board, figure out what I have to perfect and what I have to do right or what I can do better and get back to work."