It is no secret new head coach Kevin Stefanski of the Cleveland Browns uses the most tight ends in the league, running 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends) in nearly half of his offensive sets. This position group struggled mightily a year ago, and this new regime led by Stefanski and new general manager Andrew Berry made it a priority to upgrade entering 2020. Now with the 2020 training camp upon us, how does the Browns’ tight end position look on paper?
Reviewing the 2019 tight ends
Out with John Dorsey’s guys
Just a year ago, former general manager John Dorsey brought in a player he discovered when he held the same role with the Kansas City Chiefs in tight end Demetrius Harris. After just one unsuccessful season filled with dropped passes, Harris was released by Berry, along with other Dorsey favorites such as right guard Eric Kush and cornerback T.J. Carrie.
What about the rest of the group?
Withdrawing one name we will discuss later on, the rest of the tight ends on this roster a year ago saw significant time due to injuries and inconsistencies at the position. After a year where he proved he could handle a more substantial role, Ricky Seals-Jones signed with the Chiefs as their number two tight end behind Travis Kelce.
Two other depth pieces remain on the roster in the form of Pharaoh Brown and Stephen Carlson. The two will likely fight for one remaining roster spot after Berry, and the Browns went out and added two significant tight ends this offseason.
One significant returner to the Browns tight ends group in 2020
Despite an early plea for a trade at the beginning of July, former first-rounder David Njoku has backtracked and vocalized his commitment to the Browns in 2020. He looks to bounce back after a year under former head coach Freddie Kitchens and Dorsey where he faced a multitude of trials.
A year ago, Njoku suffered a fractured wrist and a concussion on the same play at the beginning of the 2019 season. While he returned for the back part of the 2019 campaign, he often found himself in Kitchens’ doghouse and saw himself as a healthy scratch on multiple occasions.
The newcomers to the tight ends room in 2020
The Browns land a Pro Bowl player in free agency
Making it a priority to address the tight end position entering 2020, Berry and the Browns went out and landed Pro Bowl tight end Austin Hooper in free agency. Now the highest-paid tight end in the NFL (besides Hunter Henry playing on the franchise tag for the Los Angeles Chargers), Hooper signed a lucrative four-year deal worth $44 million.
He comes to Cleveland fresh off of back-to-back Pro Bowl appearances, having tallied over 70 catches in both years. A year ago, Hooper racked up 787 yards through the air and six touchdowns on 75 catches. He now enters the 2020 season atop the depth chart for the Browns.
A rookie joins the fold in the 2020 NFL Draft
Even with a former first-rounder in Njoku, and a talented option Hooper in the tight end room, the Browns then went out and added another piece in former Florida Atlantic and John Mackey Award winner Harrison Bryant in the fourth round of the 2020 NFL Draft.
Named the nation’s best tight end in all of college football a year ago, Bryant fell to the fourth round after testing as a below-average athlete and concerns over his size. Despite these limitations, Bryant is coming off a senior season where he recorded over 1,000 yards receiving and seven touchdowns on 65 catches.
How will the Browns use their tight ends in 2020?
As previously mentioned, Stefanski uses two tight end sets more than any other play-caller in the NFL, making the need for talented depth a must and priority for this front office. Signing Hooper, talking Njoku into staying, and drafting Bryant, the Browns have accomplished their goal.
How will they use these three names? The best way to envision what these tight ends will be asked to do in 2020 is to look back to the 2019 Minnesota Vikings, the team Stefanski called plays for a year ago.
Looking at Kyle Rudolph as a blueprint for Hooper
As the top tight end for the Vikings, Kyle Rudolph saw two weeks where he was on the field for every single offensive snap, two additional games playing over 90 percent of the snaps, and five additional games playing over 80 percent of the snaps. Hooper will be on the field a lot for the Browns in 2020.
Rudolph finished with just 39 catches for 367 yards receiving and six touchdowns on the year after missing some time with an injury as well. However, a year ago, Rudolph finished as the second tight end in PFN’s Offensive Share Metric (OSM) as well.
Stefanski has already made it clear he wants to put the ball in the air more as the head coach of the Browns than he was permitted to as the offensive coordinator in Minnesota. That should mean that Hooper will get plenty of looks his way, and should easily eclipse the numbers of Rudolphlast season.
Looking at Irv Smith Jr. as a blueprint for Njoku
Even as the second tight end on the depth chart for the Vikings, Irv Smith Jr. still played over 50 percent of the offensive snaps in 12 games as a rookie in 2019. Even if Njoku is no longer the top man on the depth chart, he will also see plenty of snaps.
Watching a great deal of Smith Jr. film, it has become clear Stefanski loves to manufacture looks for his second tight end as well, shading him underneath coverage. Smith Jr. finished as quite the efficient tight end as well, ending his rookie season as the 12th most productive tight end within his system, according to OSM.
There is no reason to think Njoku’s usage would differ all that much from that of Smith Jr.’s a year ago, a year where he racked up 311 yards receiving on 26 catches and two touchdowns.
Where does Bryant fit in?
Given how steep the transition is from the college level to the NFL for tight ends, the Browns will want to do as much as they can to ease Bryant onto the field in 2020. Especially since Bryant comes from a Group of Five school rather than a Power Five school, the transition to the next level maybe even steeper.
Even if Bryant plays sparingly in 2020, the Browns will give him opportunities to thrive predominantly as a big slot receiver or as a moving piece in the H-back role. Initially, Bryant will more than likely serve in a reserve/depth role for the Browns in case Hooper or Njoku get shaken up this season.