David Njoku Looks to Flash Fantasy Upside in a More Stable Environment

Jul 07, 2024
David Njoku Looks to Flash Fantasy Upside in a More Stable Environment

A never-ending quarterback rotation in Cleveland didn’t stop tight end David Njoku from reeling off his best-ever fantasy season. The 27-year-old led the Browns in receptions (81) and touchdowns (six) en route to a TE7 season, scoring 10.0 half-PPR points per game. The team now expects Deshaun Watson to suit up for a full year of work for the first time since 2020. How will a more solidified offense impact the tight end ahead of 2024?

Click here for more 2024 Player Profiles!

David Njoku’s Career to This Point

It’s been a bit of a rocky ride for David Njoku since being selected near the end of the first round back in 2017. A wrist fracture sidelined him for most of his crucial third year in the league, and upon his return, he found himself as a third-stringer behind mostly-forgotten offensive pieces Austin Hooper and Harrison Bryant. Further injury luck and his role in Cleveland continued to make him nothing more than a streaming option, leading him to request a trade ahead of what would be a decently productive 2022 campaign.

Those 628 yards on 58 receptions seemed like the high-water mark, as it isn’t too often we see a breakout performance for a tight end heading into his seventh NFL season.

David Njoku Stats, 2021 - 2023
Year Targets Target Share YPRR* aDOT half-PPR TE Finish
2021 36 10.9% 1.56 9.3 TE24 (5.6 PPG)
2022 58 16.7% 1.55 7.8 TE9 (8.1 PPG)
2023 88 20.1% 1.75 5.4 TE7 (10.0 PPG)

As unlikely as it may have been, that breakout did come to fruition, and it was driven by an even more unlikely source. Through most of the first half of the ‘23 season, it seemed like we were getting more of the same tight performances that we were used to: a hard-capped fantasy asset who didn’t put up crooked numbers if he wasn’t finding the end zone. The quarterback play ranged from below-average to dreadful, as Deshaun Watson continued his stretch of inability, and the likes of Dorian Thompson-Robinson, P.J. Walker, and Jeff Driskel unable to string together consistent play.

Help was on the way for a late-season Browns playoff push, and subsequently, fantasy managers also hoping to make a playoff push. Joe Flacco heavily targeted Njoku down the stretch, helped in part by WR1 Amari Cooper missing two games. According to 4for4’s Market Share Splits App, the tight end averaged 15.2 half-PPR points per game with Flacco on the field, as opposed to his mediocre 7.7 points scored with the aforementioned group.

With Flacco at the helm, increased play-action usage saw the athletic Njoku rumbling into open spaces, leading to multiple long touchdown scores. Over 70 play-action dropbacks, Flacco averaged 158 yards per game on 11.62 yards per attempt, with much of that going to his tight end. Njoku finished the ‘23 season with 10.39 YAC/reception, the most of any TE with more than 10 receptions on play-action designs.

With Flacco now in Indianapolis and a projected healthy season of Watson as the signal-caller, it will be interesting to see if the Browns will continue to incorporate a higher rate of these situations in 2024.

The Browns Offense in 2024

We’re still unsure exactly who will be calling plays in Cleveland this season with Alex Van Pelt out of town, but it’s likely to be similar to what the Browns have looked like under Kevin Stefanski over the previous four years. Before we can assume the 2024 play-calling tendencies of Stefanski and new OC Ken Dorsey, there are two significant situations to consider: the health and effectiveness of Watson and running back Nick Chubb.

The quarterback is recovering from his November shoulder surgery and might not be a full-go come training camp, though he got plenty of work in during Spring seven-on-sevens. Per Stefanski back in June,

“I’ve said it before (that) I’ve gotten to see him throw throughout the course of this rehab,” Stefanski said. “I don’t know (exactly) when it was, but a while back, he looked very normal to me. So that looked normal to me.”

If Watson truly is back —or relatively close— to the form he showed in his final year with the Texans (2020 - 4,823 passing yards, 70.2% completion rate), he should offer more consistency in an offense that Njoku himself labeled “juicy.” Throughout Njoku’s career, he has dealt with the very epitome of inconsistency from the men throwing him the ball. This could offer him a strong floor in fantasy, particularly if the team is more pass-heavy to begin the year.

Nick Chubb’s Week 1 availability is still up in the air, though there have been positive reports regarding him being “active” for opening kickoff. Simply being “active” on game day doesn’t necessarily mean the team will run the offense through him, which points toward the possibility that the team will air it out through the first month of the ‘24 season.

With a healthy Chubb back in 2022, the team ranked 24th in neutral-game pass rate (52.3%) but jumped up to 13th (58.1%) after he was sidelined prior to Week 3. If we see him sidelined or less involved in the offense to kick off the season, there’s a chance the team remains in the top half of the league in pass rate, which could help Njoku get more involved early on.

Projecting the Browns Pass-Catchers in Fantasy

Any conversation about the Browns pass-catching group needs to start at the top with Amari Cooper. The former Cowboy has a stranglehold on the team’s No. 1 spot, racking up a 24.4% target share and nearly 100 yards in Watson’s five full games last season. That number would have been the 15th-highest in the league last season, sandwiched between Ja’Marr Chase and Chris Olave. It’s not an insurmountable mark for a No. 2 option to overcome, though. That’s well below target-hog options across the league, such as Tyreek Hill, Davante Adams, or CeeDee Lamb, who had marks at or above 29%.

What is concerning is Njoku’s target rate with Watson on the field. He had a measly 6.2 air yards per game and a 16.3% target share, finishing zero of five games with an aDOT over 2.0. However, there is a chance that his late-season heroics as an intermediate-to-deep target with Flacco will force Stefanski’s hand to get the tight end some action further away from the line of scrimmage.

Behind the team’s top-two options, it becomes slim pickings, depending on what you think about newly added Jerry Jeudy. Jeudy offers the offense someone who can stretch the field out of the slot, but it’s worth wondering how involved he should be. Last season, he registered the 10th-worst contested catch rate (23.1%) among 103 qualifying wide receivers while finishing 59th in on-target catch rate (78.6%) on balls that traveled 15 or more air yards down the field. The athletic TE might be a better option in that realm and could infringe on Jeudy’s slot role more than the wide receiver might like.

For fantasy purposes, Njoku should be treated as a top-10 option, with the opportunity for some spike weeks, if he can finally get on the same page as his woebegone quarterback. A good year from Njoku doesn’t infringe on Cooper continuing to be a solid WR2, but the rest of the WR depth chart can be ignored outside of best ball stacks.

Bottom Line

  • David Njoku had a breakout season in 2023, in his seventh professional year, with a carousel of quarterbacks.
  • A return to form from Deshaun Watson could equate to a massive weekly ceiling for the tight end, but that next-level play is far from guaranteed.
  • If Njoku continues to excel in the intermediate areas of the field, he could very well eat into Jerry Jeudy’s usage, which makes the receiver a fade in most fantasy formats.
  • According to current Underdog ADP, Njoku is coming off of draft boards as the TE11 (101.9), dropping nearly a full round since Spring. His splits with Watson are stark, but if we can find a middle ground between the (apparently) fully healthy QB and every other QB Njoku has played with, there are outs for a top-10 finish.
Latest Articles
Most Popular