The Cleveland Browns are hoping to return to the playoffs in 2022 after adding quarterback Deshaun Watson, but they’ll need some of their breakout candidates to step up if they want to get back to the postseason. Which Browns players could be on the verge of career years?
Cleveland Browns 2022 breakout candidates
David Njoku, TE
The Browns had big plans for David Njoku when they drafted the Miami product at the back end of the first round in the 2017 NFL Draft. But the 6’4″, 250-pound elite athlete hasn’t exactly broken out in the NFL. His best season came in 2018, when he managed 56 receptions for 639 yards and four touchdowns. With Cleveland’s pass-catching depth chart largely wide open, can Njoku take a step forward in 2022?
Any optimism should be rooted in Njoku likely receiving the most targets of his career next season. Veteran tight end Austin Hooper — who played 65% of the Browns’ offensive snaps and garnered 61 targets last year (second-most on the team) — is now gone. Harrison Bryant is still around, but Njoku should see his playing time rise from 60% into the 75% range.
If he can pick up some of Hooper’s red-zone targets (12 in 2021), Njoku will have more scoring chances and should be able to top his career-high of four TDs. He finished fourth among tight ends in yards per reception (13.2) a season ago, trailing only Kyle Pitts, Dallas Goedert, and Rob Gronkowski. Njoku’s skill set is apparent on film. He just needs more consistent opportunities to take his game to the next level.
Newly-acquired wide receiver Amari Cooper will provide target competition in Cleveland, but Jarvis Landry — the club’s target leader last season — is now with the New Orleans Saints. Njoku will compete with Donovan Peoples-Jones and third-round rookie David Bell to become the Browns’ No. 2 receiver. Yet, the smart money is on the 25-year-old tight end to slide into that role.
Njoku is set to play on a $10.931 million franchise tag in 2022. However, the Browns clearly would prefer to retain him for the long haul. Jeremy Fowler of ESPN recently reported Cleveland offered Njoku a multi-year extension worth $13 million annually. Will he accept that deal, or will he bank on a 2022 breakout campaign that could push him into the $14-15 million range?
Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, LB
Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah is the prototype for what NFL linebackers could look like going forward. At 6’2″, 221 pounds, JOK was the sixth-lightest LB to enter the draft since 2000. And despite being asked to play a very different role in the NFL than at Notre Dame, Owusu-Koramoah started his upward ascent during his rookie season.
JOK played the majority of his collegiate snaps in the slot. However, that was something he was rarely tasked with in Cleveland last year (just 62 snaps). Instead, he played primarily as a standard off-ball linebacker. Owusu-Koramoah flew around the field and was predictably excellent in coverage, flashing his ability to pass off routes. But he also held up surprisingly well as a run defender.
“The sky is the limit for JOK,” Browns defensive coordinator Joe Woods said in January. “He is so dynamic in so many different areas. His ability to blitz. His ability to match up in coverage and make plays in space. Throughout the season as he got more comfortable, you really saw his abilities just show up in different areas at times.”
The Browns have an All-Pro on the defensive line in Myles Garrett. They have a star in the secondary in Denzel Ward. They’ve been searching for a playmaker at the second level, and if Owusu-Koramoah’s rookie season was any indication, they’ve found one.
Grant Delpit, S
Viewed as a steal after coming off the board 44th overall in the 2020 NFL Draft, Grant Delpit missed his entire rookie season after tearing his Achilles in training camp. He came back with a vengeance in 2021, appearing in 15 games (seven starts) while posting 66 combined tackles, three pass deflections, and one interception.
Delpit took on a full-time role down the stretch, playing nearly 100% of Cleveland’s defensive snaps over the final four games while a shoulder injury and COVID-19 sidelined Ronnie Harrison. How the Browns choose to deploy Delpit, Harrison, and fellow safety John Johnson in 2022 will define how large of a leap Delpit can take in his third NFL campaign.
Neither Harrison nor Johnson is at their best when playing a deep free safety role. Both are better lined up in the box or closer to the line of scrimmage. Delpit, meanwhile, has the instincts and speed to play as a centerfielder. If the Browns use three-safety looks in 2022, that’s likely his role.
Delpit will be eligible for an extension after the upcoming season. Cleveland’s front office has been more than willing to invest in the secondary, and they just made Ward the highest-paid corner in the NFL. If Delpit posts a breakout year in 2022, he might be next in line for a payday.