Matt Waldman shares his pre-NFL Draft scouting report on Cleveland Browns tight end David Njoku, an emerging big-play talent.
2. David Njoku, Miami (6-4, 246)
If the questions about O.J. Howard’s effort and focus are legitimate, Njoku could easily be the top tight end in this class. Based on the RSP’s evaluation that values blocking that’s “good enough to contribute,” Njoku is mighty close to earning the top spot. A high school national champion in the high jump, Njoku is a fluid, quick-twitch athlete with football skills that should only improve with work.
Njoku has notable acceleration. His 4.34-second, 20- Shuttle may not compare to the likes of Howard, but it’s better than Ladarius Green and Zach Ertz and on par with Julius Thomas and Tyler Eifert. If he earns an open seam between a linebacker and safety, he has the speed to split them.
When jammed, Njoku counteracts the press with a chop or rip. It’s a good start, but he’ll need to develop more moves to counteract physical coverage, because NFL teams will want to detach him from the formation.
Njoku does a convincing job of setting up play-action routes where he begins as a run blocker and converts to a receiver. His acceleration is strong enough that defenders playing zone can be slow to react to his position. Njoku will also work with his quarterback if the route doesn’t break open, finding a second opening in the coverage for his quarterback.
His routes against man coverage are good and still improving. He accelerates into his breaks and transitions smoothly in and out of breaks. His breaks are flat on outside-breaking routes and he gets his head around quickly to locate the ball.
When Njoku runs a double move, he sells the route with a compelling turn of the hips, knees, shoulders, and head. This route type illustrates the promise he has with hard breaks. Once he masters the one-step transition and bends from stem to break, he’ll have sudden breaks that will be difficult to defend.
Although Njoku catches the ball in stride, he’ll have to communicate better with his quarterback on intermediate and deep routes so both know which shoulder the quarterback will target. He’s had miscues with Brad Kaaya on these plays and he has to slow down to make adjustments that invite coverage into the play.
Njoku knows how to earn position and shield defenders during the act of the catch. However, he needs more work on setting up the defender at the late stages of the route before the catch so he can reach the ball with greater consistency.
His work at the catch point is often excellent. He catches the ball with his arms extended and proper hands position and tight coverage does not disrupt his concentration for the ball or to stay inside the boundary. When necessary, Njoku can win the ball in these situations with one hand and he can do so with a difficult adjustment around the defender.
There’s still room for Njoku to refine these skills. He doesn’t extend his arms as high as he should and it’s because he leaves his feet too early or unnecessarily. Because his ball-tracking is strong at the catch point, I don’t think it’s a fundamental flaw as much as it is a point of refinement with specific targets that he can iron out with practice.
Refined hand position will also increase Njoku’s consistency. He has a tendency to clap his hands to the ball rather than get them in a set position so the ball meets them. It’s a subtle difference, but it can be the difference between a smooth catch and fighting the ball. Njoku also experiences some concentration drops where he looks downfield before securing the target. His 11-1 broad jump is just an inch behind Bucky Hodges top mark of 11-2.
Njoku and Hodges (and Iowa’s George Kittle at 11-0) have the best three broad jumps at the position during the past 12 years. I don’t discuss the broad jump much because the best heuristic statement for explaining the drill is “How Barry Sanders are you?” Since no one is Barry Sanders, and tight ends aren’t making a living with jump cuts, stop-start moves, and reversals of field, it’s a drill that adds a layer of information about the player but usually doesn’t stand out on its own.
Although Hodges and Kittle are in the same league as Njoku at the Combine, Njoku was the only player who put this skill to notable use as a runner. His burst from a stopped position is good enough to avoid contact in tight traffic. Paired with his acceleration and balance, Njoku is dangerous on tight end screens. He has a stiff-arm with a good wingspan and accuracy of location to shake off defensive tackles bearing down on him in tight quarters. Once he earns room in the open field, he’s agile enough to hurdle defenders.
In the open field, linebackers and defensive backs often lose ground to Njoku and he has excellent balance to work through direct and indirect collisions and wraps to his legs. In fact, he’ll work through multiple points of contact in a single run, drag defenders for extra yards, and display strong body lean when finishing plays. If he’s near the marker or pylon and untouched, expect a leap and somersault as a finish if he estimates that he can avoid a defender this way. He has that kind of grace.
Njoku’s pad level can improve. He runs too upright and he’ll take hits that he could otherwise avoid. Although he tucks the ball to the arm that’s away from pursuit, an upright running style can impact ball security.
Definitely a receiver first, Njoku should develop into a good NFL blocker. He closes the gap, punches with his hips rolling into the contact, and he often stands up defensive ends and outsider linebackers long enough to get a push or maintain position long enough to open a quick-hitting crease for a ballcarrier.
However, he’s not yet strong enough to hold up against first-level edge defenders for any real length of time. Asking him to reach block a defensive end or outside linebacker is a difficult chore for Njoku. He doesn’t get across the body of the defenders quick enough and his current strength and skill level for the block is lacking.
At this point, Njoku can be the second tight end or wingback/H-Back for an offense. He’s much better in space against smaller outside linebackers and defensive backs. He’s patient with closing the gap on stalk blocks and he has the strength to drive these opponents backwards.
He can also slide off first-level shield blocks or drive blocks and reach the middle linebacker or safety with a smooth transition. He also cut blocks all defenders with good height and form Njoku’s pass protection needs work. He’ll be useful on double teams if he’s kept in the pocket due to a pre-snap adjustment to a blitz, but he’s too light to handle defensive ends capable of bull rushing him.
He has lateral quickness and can anchor against a lineman long enough if the pass is a quick drop and throw. Despite his lack of strength to anchor, Njoku has good strikes and lands with impact. If he adds weight, Njoku will be capable of manning up more edge defenders in a greater variety of situations as both a pass protector and run blocker.
If not, he’s still a dangerous H-Back/move tight end capable of helping at the edges of the formation and the flats as a blocker and wreaking havoc as a receiver anywhere on the field. Howard may be the best prospect in this deep class, but Njoku is one of my favorites. He should become a fantasy favorite, too.
David Njoku 2017 Highlights
Pre-NFL Draft Fantasy Advice: No one should be surprised if Njoku winds up a better—perhaps far better— fantasy option to Howard. He may experience an untimely drop during a given week, but he’s also capable of plays that will make him a high-volume option at the position.
I think Njoku will be what Eric Ebron has yet to become and the same advice I gave to Howard applies to Njoku: first-round pick in premium leagues and second or third rounds in other formats.
This analysis of Njoku is only the beginning of what you’ll find every year in the Rookie Scouting Portfolio publication. For most in-depth analysis of skill players available, get the 2018 Rookie Scouting Portfolio. If you’re a fantasy owner the Post-Draft Add-on comes with the 2012 – 2018 RSPs at no additional charge. Best, yet, 10 percent of every sale is donated to Darkness to Light to combat sexual abuse. You can purchase past editions of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio for just $9.95 each. You can pre-order the 2019 RSP beginning in December.