Cleveland Browns: Tight End preview, projection


All signs point to the Cleveland Browns transitioning to an offense that puts significant emphasis on the tight end position.

Whether it was with the Oakland Raiders or Cincinnati Bengals, when Hue Jackson has been in charge of the offense, the tight end position has been something he wants to be a big part of his offense. That is setting up to be the case with the Cleveland Browns, who have added some talented players to the position since this regime has arrived.

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Last year, tight ends combined for 68 receptions for 760 yards and five touchdowns. Most of it was provided by Gary Barnidge, who was released following Day 1 of the 2017 NFL Draft after the team selected David Njoku out of Miami, trading up four spots to get him with the 29th pick of the first round.

The way the Browns appear to be going, short of injuries, it’s reasonable to expect them surpass all of those team totals this coming season with this group, most notably touchdown receptions. The Browns certainly have receivers they believe in and want to get major production from, but this group of tight ends could end up setting the tone in the passing game.

Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images
Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images /

David Njoku

Njoku’s slated to be the inline tight end for the Browns, which will often be referred to as the “Y”. He’s undersized as he enters his NFL career, having just turned 21 years old and still having plenty of room on his frame to fill out and develop physically.

Ultimately, the goal is for Njoku to be a complete tight end that can be a dynamic receiving threat and physical blocker, but the latter is going to be a work in progress. Not only does Njoku simply need to get stronger to be able to deal with some of the defensive ends he’ll have to face on a regular basis, he also has to improve his technique.

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At Miami, Njoku was usually stepping inside of the opponent and shielding them off rather than attempting to drive block someone off the line of scrimmage. In the Browns’ power scheme, they may have some zone type concepts where Njoku can simply shield the opponent from the play, but he’s going to be asked to get behind his pads and be physical up front. That’s easier said than done in an AFC North with players like Cameron Heyward, Carlos Dunlap and Stephon Tuitt.

One of the ways the Browns can mitigate the issue is to flex Njoku out to the slot. He gets a free release and a bit of a head start, plus if he’s tasked with taking the defensive end, it’s more of a crack block than a head on block. It also gives him some opportunities to block linebackers and safeties which he’d be able to deal with physically.

Certainly, the Browns want Njoku to help the running game, but they drafted him to be a playmaker and a nightmare with the ball in his hands. Be it inline or in space, they are going to find ways to get the ball in his hands so he can hopefully run after the catch, which is where he was at his best in college. He’s fast, physical and agile giving opponents multiple things to think about when trying to tackle him.

Njoku didn’t have much trouble creating space in college, but he wasn’t a terribly nuanced route runner. Similar to Corey Coleman at Baylor, Njoku was simply too strong and fast for opponents trying to cover him. His route tree was a little more fleshed out than Coleman’s was, but Njoku needs to be more efficient in his route running, especially when it comes to sticking his foot in the ground to make a cut to get open.

Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images
Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images /

Seth DeValve

The “wide receiver” out of Princeton that people knew little about when he was drafted in the fourth round in 2016 is a player the Browns are planning around in 2017. DeValve did a little bit of everything for the Tigers, including playing a true Y, an H-back and lining up out wide as a receiver, which is apparently why they listed him that way for the draft.

DeValve is a tremendously gifted athlete on the same level as Njoku. He’s at a slight disadvantage because he’s simply not as tall, so he’s not really suited to play inline in the NFL. As a result, while Njoku is slated to be the inline guy, DeValve is a space player sometimes referred to as the “U”. Put him in the slot, play him off the line and let him create mismatch problems.

In a limited sample size as a rookie, DeValve showed his ability to do just that, catching ten passes on 13 targets for 127 yards and a pair of touchdowns. A hamstring and surviving an attempted murder plot from Robert Griffin III on a pass into an opposing safety are the reason DeValve wasn’t able to show more, but he made an impression. Coach Greg Seamon has been raving about DeValve since the offseason before Njoku was a possibility, and he’s reportedly made the most of the time off.

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In minicamps, DeValve’s hands have been outstanding and he’s making it clear why the team believes in him. The only reason more hasn’t been made of DeValve’s performance is due to Njoku’s many highlights. One thing is clear — the Browns intend to use both of these guys heavily in their offense, so while they have a lot to prove, this is where the offense is headed.

As with Njoku, they are going to find ways to get the ball in DeValve’s hands and let him cause problems. DeValve’s intelligence and versatility he showed at Princeton is a big reason the Browns liked him. He’s accustomed to moving around in the formation and the team has talked about his experience at receiver aiding him in his route running development.

DeValve’s utility should be pretty clear in training camp, but hopefully fans get a taste of it in the preseason as well, so they understand why the Browns are headed in this direction.

Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images
Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images /

Randall Telfer

Telfer is a good football player who has had awful luck with injuries. When healthy, Telfer has been the best blocking tight end on the Browns roster. He’s shown next to nothing as a receiving threat to this point, but that’s why they have DeValve and Njoku. It would be nice to see Telfer at least be functional so when defenses are worrying about everyone else, he can catch a cheap first down or touchdown every so often.

When Telfer comes in, he’s likely going to lined up next to Shon Coleman on the right side and the Browns are going to run behind them. This will be especially important in the red zone and in short yardage situations, but if Jackson is true to his word about running the ball this year, Telfer could be in there more often effectively daring opponents to stop their ground game.

The hope is that Telfer can finally find some luck when it comes to his health and turn in a full season. He came into the league with a foot injury that caused him to miss his rookie season and missed a couple games in 2016 with injury. A healthy, fully effective Telfer rounds out the tight end unit nicely to give them a little bit of everything, especially as Njoku develops in that area.

Taylor McNamara

McNamara was signed as an undrafted free agent. He’s attended a pair of prestigious football powers, first attending Oklahoma and then USC as a graduate transfer. McNamara has reportedly been a pleasant surprise in minicamp, drawing some attention as a receiving threat.

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As an athlete, McNamara is pretty solid, but his lack of overall strength is a little concerning. In terms of his usage, McNamara has plenty of experience as an inline tight end and blocker, but has been utilized in other areas. The lack of strength might become problematic when the pads come on and he has to try to move someone like Carl Nassib off the ball.

On tape, McNamara seems to have a good feel for how to find space to make plays and use his body to box out opponents. So while he’s a pretty solid athlete, this helps him look a little quicker than he otherwise might.

If his playmaking ability without pads can carry over to training camp and the preseason, his experience in pro style looks could be helpful in his quest to make the team.

J.P. Holtz

Since graduating from Pitt, Holtz was in training camp and then on and off from the practice squad for the past year. Holtz is a space tight end with some decent athleticism that has been able to develop for the past year and should know the offense, which should aid his cause.

Holtz projects to be competing to show he’s worth keeping to play behind DeValve. If he’s too good to let go, that’s good, but the difficulty is he’s competing against such a wide array of options.

What that means is that Holtz is not only competing against other tight ends who might be able to block as well as play in space, but also competing against wide receivers that can play in the slot if he’s only a space player. That is a big field to compete against and win, so the odds are long for him to make the final roster, save for injury.

Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images
Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images /

What I think will happen

I believe Njoku, DeValve and Telfer are safe bets to make the final roster. That’s not really a surprise. Unless the Browns view Dan Vitale as a tight end option as well as a fullback in the vein of Ryan Hewitt, who Jackson had with the Bengals, I think the Browns want to keep four tight ends.

The Browns plan to run a lot of multiple tight end sets, so having a fourth tight end becomes pretty important. Yes, they could opt to keep a guy on the practice squad to bring up, but the Browns seem to be putting enough of an emphasis on the position, keeping a fourth is a prudent play.

In that sense, McNamara might have a shot to make the team, if he can hold up as a blocker while continuing to show a knack for making plays. In the event someone gets hurt, he might be able to handle a game or few in relief.

Ideally, I think the Browns would rather put McNamara on the practice squad and hope he can use the year to physically get stronger to handle the rigors of being an inline tight end. In other words, I think the Browns are still on the look out for their fourth tight end to round out the roster.

Traveling down to the other end of I-71, the Cincinnati Bengals have six tight ends on their roster. It’s a talented group too, including Tyler Eifert, C.J. Uzomah, Tyler Kroft, Ryan Hewitt, Mason Schreck and Cethan Carter. They aren’t going to keep all six and it almost doesn’t matter who they cut, because all of them have talent.

The guy I loved in the draft and would absolutely love to see end up on the Browns through a waiver claim is Mason Schreck. A seventh-round pick out of Buffalo from Medina, Schreck is built to be a full service tight end, but was also the leading receiver for the Bulls this past year. If the Bengals try to sneak him to their practice squad, hopefully the Browns snag him.

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Cethan Carter is built like J.P. Holtz with pretty good athleticism and strength. He’s not on the level of DeValve athletically, but he’s a player with NFL tools. Even if one of these guys surprise and supplant someone like Tyler Kroft or Uzomah, unlikely as that is, the Browns should be prepared to grab whichever one hits the waiver wire.

In the end, the Browns end up with what could be a really nice foursome of tight ends while hopefully getting McNamara on the practice squad, giving them what amounts to be a bullpen arm. Having four talented players of at least 240 pounds who can run is invaluable especially when the Browns are putting such an emphasis on the spot, as they should.