David Njoku has been willing to do whatever work was needed to set himself up for the opportunity he received last Sunday in Los Angeles.
Tight ends coach Drew Petzing has seen it himself. Njoku has embraced any responsibilities he needed to carry as a blocking tight end, as well as recognizing that any improvements he could make as a pass catcher and route runner would make it more likely for the 2017 first-round pick to explode with a big game in 2021.
That happened in Week 5.
Njoku led the Browns with seven catches on seven targets for 149 yards and a touchdown. The score came on the Browns' longest play of the season, when Njoku outpaced the rest of the Chargers defense after catching the pass off a slant route, highlighting one of the best performances from a Browns player this season.
"He's out here every day working his tail off, and it shows up on the field a lot from Monday to Saturday," Petzing said Friday. "It was huge for him."
Njoku's performance was the best of his career and skyrocketed him to the Browns' leading receiver this season with 260 receiving yards — already more than the 213 he had last season. His touchdown helped give the Browns a chance to win in what was ultimately a 47-42 shootout loss, but the play highlighted just how dangerous Njoku can be when the football is in his hands.
Even though he's among the tallest players on the roster at 6-foot-4 and 246 pounds, Njoku still possesses speed that can catch a defense by surprise. Petzing knew Njoku could fly by defenders as soon as he made his touchdown catch last week and joked that the only thing stopping Njoku from the goal-line was fatigue.
Njoku had never completed a play as long as the 71-yard score in his career.
"When I saw the green grass in front of him, I was just hoping he wouldn't get tired or pull up," Petzing said, "and he didn't, which was awesome. I was just excited to see him get all the way there."
Njoku has positioned himself to be on the field more often as a result of him improving his blocking abilities. He can be used in more play calls, which has been evident throughout the first five weeks of the season — his usage has steadily increased since Week 1, when he played in 59 percent of the snaps. He's now been used in over 60 percent of snaps in the last three weeks.
"We're lucky to have him," QB Baker Mayfield said. "He's one of those guys who you build confidence with, continue to get those reps and experience, and (his confidence) is only going to go up, which is great for us."
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Not every game will result in the type of output Njoku posted last week. That's because the Browns have several other playmakers capable of contributing in the offense, too.
The other tight ends — Njoku, Austin Hooper and Harrison Bryant — have all had big games of their own over the last two seasons. Those performances don't always happen by design from the Browns; they come as a result of what opposing defenses present them.
But the challenges of covering two or even all three of them — a challenge the Browns presented to the Chargers on nearly every play in the first quarter last week — can set the stage for one of them to dominate.
"You never know who's going to have a big game," Petzing said. "That's the nice part about the way the offense is built. I think it makes it hard to defend. It goes back to our philosophy as an offense of just trying to be so multiple that a defense doesn't even know where to attack."
Njoku had his turn in Week 5, and the Browns know he'd love to have another turn again soon.
"Anytime a guy gets to go out and show that to the world," Petzing said, "I think it certainly builds his confidence and tells him he's doing the right things."