The Cleveland Browns may have found their head coach in former Minnesota Vikings’ offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski. He brings with him the wide-zone scheme which brought success to Minnesota a year ago, and a love for tight ends – one of which is 2020 NFL Draft pick Harrison Bryant.
With the recent news of tight end David Njoku requesting a trade from the Browns, it will be Bryant who will likely step up into the second tight end role behind Pro Bowl veteran Austin Hooper in Stefanski’s offense. This past season, the second tight end with the Vikings behind Kyle Rudolph was 2019 second round pick Irv Smith Jr.
A year ago, during his rookie campaign, Smith Jr. went for 311 yards and two touchdowns on 36 catches for the Vikings. Will Bryant see similar success as a rookie in Cleveland, or could he see even more attention than Smith Jr. did a year ago in Stefanski’s offense?
How often was Irv Smith Jr. used in Minnesota in 2019?
Living as the second tight end on the depth chart, even as a rookie, does not mean that playing time will be scarce. In fact, as the offensive coordinator for the Vikings a year ago, Stefanski ran a league-high in multiple tight end sets (57 percent of the time). That means Bryant will have plenty of opportunities to make a name for himself in 2020.
Looking at Smith Jr.’s usage from a year ago, there was not a game where he saw under 42 percent of the snaps offensively. In fact, he even saw over 80 percent of the snaps in two games for the Vikings. This seems to be a good baseline when considering the workload of Bryant as a rookie for the Browns.
Charting the Vikings’ week seven matchup with the Detroit Lions, Smith Jr. saw the field for 41 offensive plays, 56 percent of their offensive snaps. How was Smith Jr. deployed? We turn their next.
How was Irv Smith Jr. deployed under Stefanski?
Looking at that week seven matchup with the Lions, Smith Jr. was aligned in four different looks for then offensive coordinator Stefanski. Given the versatility of perhaps the best player in the Conference-USA, and the John Mackey Award winner (for the nation’s top tight end) in Bryant, he could be used in a similar role with the Browns in 2020.
Seeing only ten snaps as an in-line tight end versus the Lions, Smith Jr. saw most of his snaps coming from an off-line H-back position (15 offensive snaps). Used as both a decoy and receiving threat, Smith Jr. lined up in the slot nine times and out wide twice.
Stefanski asks a ton out of his tight ends at multiple alignments, and given his status as a fourth-round pick, the Browns will ask Bryant to do the same for their offense as Smith Jr. did for the Vikings a year ago.
Is he up for the task?
Harrison Bryant must improve as an in-line blocker in 2020
Lining up as an in-line tight end may be the biggest adjustment that Harrison Bryant will have to make for the Browns in 2020 after seeing the majority of his snaps flexed out, in the slot, or as an H-back.
Not known as an extravagant blocker during his time at Florida Atlantic, and with a fairly thin frame for an NFL tight end position, this is the area of Bryant’s game that will take the most time in adjustment. Good news, however, in Stefanski’s wide-zone offensive scheme, he will be asked to do just that: get wide.
On running plays with the Vikings a year ago, Smith Jr. oftentimes was tasked with getting to the boundary. As a result, it was usually a cornerback or safety he ended up taking on, with the occasional chip at the second level.
Harrison Bryant isn’t known as an exemplary blocker by any means.
However as TE2 in a wide zone scheme, he’ll predominantly be doing just that: getting wide.
Even a thin TE like Bryant can handle DBs and chipping the occasional LB on the boundary. pic.twitter.com/Gj64hjYc9U
— Cory (@realcorykinnan) July 3, 2020
While Bryant may not be the most effective of blockers, he puts in the effort to help spring his run game. That motor and effort in a wide-zone scheme should do the trick against defensive backs as he works to clear lanes towards the perimeter of the field.
Showing toughness over the middle of the field
Death, taxes, and Stefanski scheming open tight ends.
There is no matter of if, but when, Harrison Bryant will see an opportunity to contribute as a receiver as a rookie in 2020. If Bryant wins the second tight end job (should Njoku depart as he has requested), then that opportunity will come early and often as a rookie in 2020.
Stefanski will, however, ask his tight ends to work over the middle of the field. This will require a level of toughness to cross the face of the linebackers at the second level and find a hole to be a reliable threat for Baker Mayfield.
Kevin Stefanski will scheme you open as a tight end, however he’s going to require you to work across the middle.
Not Njoku’s strong suit, but an area where Bryant has proven to be tough. pic.twitter.com/hzf5uyruPH
— Cory (@realcorykinnan) July 3, 2020
As Smith did in the video above, Stefanski will find Bryant favorable one-on-one matchups, and also holes in zone coverage. During his time at FAU, Bryant was about as sure-handed as they came across the middle, and showed the willingness to fight with the linebackers to make a play for his offense.
Harrison Bryant gets his first of the year with a 3rd down conversion spanning 14 yards! Watch as he runs right through the #ODU defenders, refusing to go down!
PAT is good.
21-3 FAU, 9:39 2Q pic.twitter.com/xhDEzybKi7
— FAU Owl's Nest (@FAU_Owls_Nest) October 26, 2019
Route running savvy needed to win at every level
While tight ends in a Stefanski offense will be asked to do the mundane tasks such as run block, chip and release, and be a safety valve underneath of coverage, the new Browns’ head coach is looking to use their large frames down the field as well.
In order to win at every level of the field, a certain degree of route running savvy will be asked out of Bryant in 2020, just as it was out of Smith Jr. a year ago. A slight misdirection up the seam to gain separation or stemming defenders away from a break in man coverage, Stefanski’s tight ends must be light on their feet.
Smith Jr. is a great example of a polished route runner at the tight end position, as he is a nightmare for any linebacker who attempts to take him on in man coverage. While Cousins misses him along the boundary on an off-timed throw, Smith Jr. finds the hole along the sideline, displaying a quick break in the process.
Stefanski will flex out his tight ends with frequency. He will ask for his TEs to show route running savvy.
Irv Smith is at the bottom the screen. One of three throws Kirk would want back when targeting Smith. With better timing he’s got his TE open. pic.twitter.com/6PLf5OBtqA
— Cory (@realcorykinnan) July 3, 2020
Bryant is not quite as light-footed or the route running savant that Smith Jr. has proven to be early in his career, but lining up out wide and in the slot throughout most of his career with the Owls, he has developed a certain degree ability to make sudden, sharp breaks. As he absorbs NFL coaching, this is certainly a trait that can be nurtured in the young tight end throughout the 2020 season.
— CleWest (@erjmanlasvegas) April 25, 2020
Projecting the rookie season of Harrison Bryant in 2020 vs. Irv Smith Jr.’s
There is little doubt that Smith Jr. was the better player coming out of college and into the NFL from Alabama. However, given the new opportunity presented to Stefanski, Bryant may see more targets come his way than the former second-round pick did as a rookie.
All of this, however, is completely dependent on whether or not Njoku is moved, but given his age and athleticism, it should not be hard to find a suitor for the former first-round pick back in the 2017 NFL Draft. Smith Jr. saw only 45 targets a year ago, but should Bryant enter the season as TE2 in Cleveland, he is likely to see more than that.
Stefanski has been honest with the media, stating he’d like to open up his offense more than he did with the Vikings. While calling plays for the Vikings, he ran the football a whopping 49 percent of the time; in Cleveland, however, expect that number to be closer to a 60/40 split.
No longer with Minnesota head coach Mike Zimmer in his ear to dictate his gameplan to a certain degree, Stefanski can let it fly however often he would like to. With an increase in passing opportunities comes an increase in targets to the oft schemed around TE2 in Stefanski’s offense.
While he was just a day-three pick with the likes of Michigan wide receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones and center Nick Harris, rookie tight end Harrison Bryant has a real chance to make a name for himself week one in 2020. Should the Browns grant Njoku his request, Bryant will have opportunities aplenty to contribute within Stefanski’s offense, similar to Irv Smith Jr. from a year ago.