The Cleveland Browns are moving on from tight end Austin Hooper just two seasons after inking him to a massive deal.
Hooper was the first big signing of the Andrew Berry era, inking a four-year, $42 million deal with the Browns in March 2020 after a couple of Pro Bowl seasons in Atlanta. However, Hooper has not lived up to the hype and he became a cap casualty, with the Browns able to save $9.5 million. ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler was first to report the release.
The team confirmed the news in an official statement on March 17.
With Hooper gone, the Browns’ tight end-heavy system will rely on Njoku and third-year tight end Harrison Bryant. The Browns could also decide to look at the free agent market to fill the position at a lower price point. A name like Kyle Rudolph — who played for head coach Kevin Stefanski in Minnesota — or OJ Howard could be intriguing for Cleveland.
Deshaun Watson Pursuit Changed Browns Plans for Hooper
Hooper’s future was a question heading into this season but was part of the Browns’ plans until some recent developments, per Fowler. Those included both a trade for Amari Cooper and a pursuit of Texans QB Deshaun Watson.
“Austin Hooper was in Browns’ plans but adding Amari Cooper’s $20M cap hit and pursuing Deshaun Watson changed Cleveland’s salary cap outlook,” Fowler tweeted.
The Browns have met with Watson, although much of the details remain unknown. The Browns are contending with the Saints, Panthers and Falcons for Watson’s services. However, it does sound like the Browns have already made an offer for Watson, although what it includes is unknown.
“The first step for the Saints, Panthers, and Browns in arranging a meeting with QB Deshaun Watson was presenting a trade package to the Texans, per multiple league sources. Once Houston approved, only then did they meet,” ESPN’s Dianna Russini reported.
Njoku Key Piece Going Forward for Browns
Luckily, the Browns have Njoku to rely on after tagging him earlier this offseason and the former first-round pick has made some significant strides in making his game more well-rounded the last two seasons. He was the No. 29 overall pick of the Browns in 2017 and has an uneven career in Cleveland. He totaled more than 1,000 yards and eight touchdowns through his first two seasons combined but saw his production fall off a cliff under Freddie Kitchens. He missed most of the season, notching just five catches for 41 yards and started the next season by demanding a trade, which the new regime of GM Andrew Berry and Stefanski rebuffed.
Njoku finished with the third-most receiving yards among Browns players last season, with 475 yards on 36 receptions — a solid 13.2 average. He showed off his ability to be a downfield threat but also improved as blocker, pleasing his head coach. He also made it very clear that he wants to stay in Cleveland for the long-term, which seems much more likely now after Hooper’s departure.
“I love it here. I love it here to the core,” Njoku said during a January 10 press conference. “I honestly want to be here for the rest of my career.”