Fantasy Football: David Njoku Can Thrive in the Browns' New Offense
Cleveland Browns tight end David Njoku, one of the team's 2017 first-round draft picks, is coming off a breakout season in which he emerged as one of Baker Mayfield's favorite targets. Njoku finished second on the team with 56 receptions on 88 targets, and he added four touchdowns.
Despite being an emerging playmaker at a thin position on what's expected to be a good offense, Njoku has his fair share of skeptics in regards to his fantasy football relevancy.
The most obvious strike against Njoku is the Browns' offseason acquisition of Odell Beckham, who is sure to command a large share of targets from Mayfield. And since the Browns' offense didn't lose any major contributors this offseason, Beckham's targets are going to come at the expense of the rest of Cleveland's pass-game weapons.
Could Njoku's fantasy stock suffer as a result? It's a reasonable question to ask, but you shouldn't fret.
Let's breakdown a few reasons to remain high on Njoku's 2019 fantasy outlook.
Youth Is on His Side
Since Njoku has already been in the league for two seasons, it's easy to forget just how young he was when he entered the NFL in 2017. Having just turned 23 on July 10, Njoku is not even a full year older than Lions rookie T.J. Hockenson.
Over the years, we've learned tight ends are often slow to develop in the pros, especially in terms of their fantasy value. The immediate impact of a player such as Rob Gronkowski (10 touchdowns as a rookie) is the exception to the rule. The more common career trajectory is that of Zach Ertz, who slowly ramped up his production before solidifying himself among the elite at his position.
But when a tight end does show strong fantasy potential at a young age, as Njoku did in 2018, it's typically a sign that he will be a force for years to come.
Over the past 25 seasons, Njoku's 2018 campaign ranked as the 10th-best in terms of PPR points per game among tight ends aged 22 or younger. Here's the full top 10.
|Player||Year||Age||PPR PPG||PPR PPG the Next Year|
Not every player on this list improved the following season, but each one remained fantasy relevant, and all but one (Todd Heap in 2002) generated at least 10 PPR points per game the following year. And with the exception of Aaron Hernandez (due to his arrest) and Jermichael Finley (numerous injuries), each tight end on this list enjoyed a productive, fantasy-relevant career.
It would take a big leap to project Njoku to emerge as the next Gronk, but given his success at such a young age, anticipating him to remain a consistent, fantasy-relevant weapon like the other names on this list appears to be a realistic expectation.
Browns New Offense Creates Downfield Opportunities
Njoku was already a fantasy-relevant tight end during the Hue Jackson era, ranking 11th in PPR points prior to Jackson's firing after Week 8 in 2018. Once Freddie Kitchens took over the offense in Week 9, Njoku's production remained steady (he ranked 10th in PPR points under Kitchens), but an improved offense could give Njoku a higher ceiling this fall.
While Kitchens is expected to continue to call plays as the Browns head coach, new offensive coordinator Todd Monken -- one of the most aggressive playcallers in the game -- is likely to have an impact on the Browns' offensive philosophy.
Under Monken's guidance in 2019, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' O.J. Howard led all tight ends with 38.3 percent of his targets occurring at 15 or more yards downfield, according to Sports Info Solutions. Njoku ranked eighth (out of 28 with at least 40 total targets) at a rate of 22.5 percent.
During the eight games with Kitchens calling plays, however, 27 percent of Njoku's targets came 15 yards downfield. So it appears as though Kitchens is already open to using Njoku more as a downfield weapon, and with Monken's influence, it wouldn't be a surprise to see Njoku rank closer to the top of this list in 2019.
If Njoku sees an increase in downfield targets, it should lead to an uptick in big plays and potentially a few long touchdowns to pad his stats.
Does the Addition of OBJ Hurt?
Beckham's presence in Cleveland is going to siphon targets away from the returning members of the Browns' offense. This will likely lead to a decline in fantasy production for Jarvis Landry and others. It doesn't have to hurt Njoku's production quite as much, however.
As previously mentioned, Njoku is likely to see an increase in downfield targets in this new offense, which will make him less volume-dependent than the average tight end.
Let's use Howard's 2018 season to again drive home this point.
|Howard 2018||Targets Per Game Rank||PPR Points Per Target Rank||PPR Points Per Game Rank|
In 2018, Howard ranked just 13th in targets per game, but due to Monken's aggressive playcalling, Howard led all tight ends in PPR points per target. So despite a modest volume of targets, Howard ended up ranking sixth in PPR points per game.
To a lesser extent, Jets tight end Chris Herndon also benefited from this effect, as he had the second-highest rate of targets at 15 yards downfield (32.1 percent), behind only Howard. Herndon ranked 19th in targets per game (3.5), but he checked in sixth in points per target, which allowed him to perform at a higher level than his role in the offense would indicate.
So while it is fair to assume Beckham will have an impact on the volume of the Browns' offensive weapons, Njoku's expected role in the offense should allow him to remain fantasy relevant without needing the same target share as most other tight ends around the league.