That the Cleveland Browns have a talented roster can not be disputed, but at least one of the team’s best-paid players has not proven worth the money.
Two years ago, the Browns made former Atlanta Falcons pass catcher Austin Hooper the NFL’s highest paid tight end. It’s a title to which he continued to lay claim in 2021, making $8.3 million. That number is going up next season when Hooper’s cap hit will come in at $13.25 million, per Spotrac.
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The tight end is owed a total of $42 million over four seasons and is under contract through 2024. Cleveland has an out built into Hooper’s contract after next year, though moving on from him at that juncture would cost the team $7.5 million in the form of a dead cap hit.
Njoku Was The Player In 2021 The Browns Paid Hooper To Be
According to Alex Ballentine, of Bleacher Report, the juice required of the Browns to run Hooper out onto the field over the next two seasons simply isn’t worth the squeeze.
“That’s a hefty price to pay for a tight end who didn’t even lead all Browns tight ends in receiving yards or touchdowns,” Ballentine wrote. “David Njoku led the team in both of those categories, and he’s about to become a free agent.”
Njoku was better than Hooper in essentially every phase of the passing game this season. He caught 36 passes to Hooper’s 38 but did so on 8 fewer targets with 4 fewer drops, per Fox Sports. Njoku amassed 475 yards receiving at a clip of 13.2 yards per reception and hauled in 4 TDs, while Hooper gained 345 yards through the air and 3 TDs on 9.1 yards per catch. Njoku was also a much stronger force after the ball landed in his hands, compiling 247 yards after the catch as opposed to Hooper’s 185 YAC.
Njoku is playing on the final year of his rookie contract in 2022, after Cleveland picked up the fifth-year team option on the deal. He is set to earn just over $6 million next season. Bringing the tight end back beyond that could prove difficult considering the money the Browns have tied up in Hooper.
“The Browns are the only team that used 1-3 personnel (one running back and three tight ends) more than 10 percent of the time this season,” Ballentine continued. “That explains why they value the position so much, but it’ll be tough for them to roster three good tight ends while paying Hooper that much.”
A Healthy Baker Mayfield Might Up Hooper’s Production Next Season
Another player on the Browns’ roster who may not be worth the money he is set to make next season is quarterback Baker Mayfield.
Like Njoku, Mayfield is entering the fifth and final year of his rookie contract in 2022. Unlike Njoku, the QB’s stock is falling rather than rising. Mayfield is coming off arguably the worst season of NFL tenure, in which he passed for career-lows of 3,010 yards and 17 TDs for a QBR of 35.3, per Pro Football Reference.
The quarterback is owed $18.8 million next year and if he and the Browns don’t reach an agreement on extension, Mayfield will be able to walk as free agent following the season. That means that if the Browns don’t move on from Mayfield before then, the team would run the risk of losing him for nothing. That reality has Cleveland’s front office weighing their options under center.
One potential choice is to trade Mayfield. Former New York Jets general manager and current ESPN analyst Mike Tannenbaum said he believes the Browns could secure a 2nd or 3rd-round pick in exchange for Mayfield if they moved on from him before the start of the 2022 season.
There will likely be other quarterbacks available via trade, like the Falcons Matt Ryan or potentially the Minnesota Vikings Kirk Cousins. The Browns may even be able to get into the game for Green Bay Packers three-time MVP Aaron Rodgers, depending on how the offseason plays out.
Then again, there’s the argument for playing out the string with Mayfield — at least until the 2022 trade deadline to see how he responds to the pressure of the NFL when healthy and playing in what is truly a contract year.
Mayfield spent much of this season injured, dealing with a torn labrum in his left shoulder as well as lingering health issues to his lower body. On Wednesday, January 19, the quarterback underwent successful surgery on his non-throwing shoulder to fix the damage. He immediately came out with a message to Browns fans about what to expect moving forward.
“I checked that box off to get this fixed and now it’s on the way to the road to recovery,” Mayfield said. “This is one of those steps to get back to my true self. This past year hasn’t been very easy.”
“This is not the end of my story,” Mayfield continued. “It’s just going to be one of those little things that I’ll look back and remember that’s one of those challenges and adversity that I’m going to try to take advantage of me, and it’ll make me a better person.”