"We, not me."
It's a lesson that TE David Njoku took to heart this season, one that he fully understood after he reframed his mentality following his burn accident that he sustained on Sept. 29.
"I was like, number one, life – no matter what – is a beautiful thing," Njoku said. "The finer things, like just being able to see and hear, senses and everything. And then as each week went by and it went by, I started noticing that I was caring more about what the team needed to win, more so than what I needed to be happy. And by doing that, it also made me happy as well. Funny how life works."
Njoku battled through his burn injury, playing against the Ravens just two days later on Oct. 1. He found opportunities to share his experience as a burn victim and support others who have been as well, as he did through My Cause My Cleats and supporting the American Burn Association.
And as the season has progressed, he found ways to contribute each week offensively to their success on the field. This season, Njoku has 81 total catches for 882 yards and six touchdowns. He also has 599 yards after the catch, according to Pro Football Reference, where he can extend plays through his ability to catch a pass and gain extra yardage.
On Wednesday, Njoku earned his first career Pro Bowl honors. He was one of five Browns players to be selected for the 2024 Pro Bowl Games.
"Feels pretty good. Hopefully first of many, but honestly the best feeling is just being what I can be for this team," Njoku said. "It's crazy saying that thinking of the past and how everything went the past few years, but there's nowhere else I'd rather be."
Njoku's 81 catches lead the Browns this season. It's also the fifth-most by a Browns tight end in a season, as well as tied for eighth-most by any Browns player. His six receiving touchdowns this season are a career-high, as well as lead the team. Njoku is also the first Browns tight end to make a Pro Bowl since Gary Barnidge in 2014.
Njoku's NFL journey has been a storied one, as he was drafted by the Browns as the 29th pick in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft. Over the course of Njoku's seven-year career, he's experienced a level of growth, both in his game on the field and as a person.
"As crazy as it sounds, throughout my whole career, it was mostly about stats and how many yards I can get, how many touchdowns I can get," Njoku said. "In the one year where I felt like, not that I didn't care about it, but more so the team was more important than me, is the year that I make it. So, it's really funny how that all works out."
HC Kevin Stefanski has taken notice of that growth, both on and off the field, since his first year with the Browns in 2020. Stefanski believes that Njoku has showcased – especially this season – how he is a complete tight end in both the run and pass game.
"I just think he's an incredible teammate," Stefanski said. "He's a positive force in this building, both on the practice field, in the locker room, on the game field. He brings such great energy to this team."
His other coaches see that same level of growth and energy from Njoku. This season, OC Alex Van Pelt has tracked how many times his players go down and pick their teammates up off the ground in games. Whoever leads that week with pickups, Van Pelt gives that player a toy pickup truck.
Van Pelt said that tradition goes back to his time when he was a quarterback and made an effort to help pick his own teammates up to create a tight-knit group. He brought the concept to Cleveland and the offense has taken to it, as they pick one another off the ground in games and support one another. Njoku has won a handful of pickup trucks over the course of this season based off his efforts on the field.
Ever since Van Pelt joined the Browns as the offensive coordinator in 2020, he saw from an early moment the talent that Njoku brought to the table. Over the last three seasons, they have been finding ways to highlight his skill set.
"It was probably just us finding the best way to utilize his skill sets, I think," Van Pelt said. "And we grew with him as we saw what he could really do. Again, we try to get him the ball in all situations, not only down the field, but short and let him run. So, it's probably a little bit of us growing into him as much as him growing into himself."
That growth has paid off, especially in recent weeks as the Browns have won four straight games and clinched a playoff berth. And with his first Pro Bowl honors, Njoku is being recognized for his presence in the offense and his impact this season.
"I could not be happier because there's a guy that just done nothing but keep his head down and work has gotten better every year we've been together and just so happy and proud of him," Van Pelt said. "And I'm glad that he got the accomplishments because he deserves them. He's really playing at that level and again, just really happy for Dave because there's a guy that does it the right way and it's paid off for him."