The Cleveland Browns have been spending money like gangbusters over the last couple of seasons, which means some high-profile cuts are likely down the road.
One possible example is wide receiver Amari Cooper, who will cost the team just shy of $23.8 million in each of the next two seasons. The Browns won’t part ways with their top wideout this year, though the chances Cleveland at least considers releasing Cooper next spring are relatively good because of how difficult its salary cap will be to manage moving forward — namely due to the $230 million fully-guaranteed contract owed to QB Deshaun Watson.
A less likely example in the immediate, which was laid out by Jake Rill of Bleacher Report on Monday, July 17, is tight end David Njoku. He inked a four-year, $55 million deal with the Browns in 2022.
“It’s no secret [Njoku] wanted to get a fresh start somewhere else in the past, as he made it publicly known that he’d requested a trade,” Rill wrote. “Cleveland has almost too much depth at tight end with Jordan Akins and Harrison Bryant also on its roster. There may not be room for all of them to get substantial time on the field.”
Trading David Njoku Makes More Sense for the Browns Than Cutting Him in 2023
Rill went so far as to say that Njoku needs to produce “an impressive camp” to avoid getting the axe from the Browns this summer.
That position is a hard sell considering Cleveland will gain nothing in cap savings by cutting Njoku now. In fact, the franchise will add $3 million in cost to its 2023 salary cap and be forced to pay the tight end $11.4 million to go look for a new team if it makes that move, per Over The Cap.
That said, cutting Njoku ahead of this season would clear cap hits of $18.4 million and $19.1 million off Cleveland’s books in 2024 and 2025, respectively. There is value in that sense if he underperforms. But the same savings will remain there for the team at future junctures, so the notion that the Browns will move on from the tight end this summer is a considerable stretch, especially by way of cutting him.
Trading Njoku before the year officially begins in September is a better proposition, as it would save the Browns $4.5 million and drop the TE’s dead cap hit in 2023 to around $3.9 million. And, of course, the team would get an asset, or assets, back in return.
“If the Browns wanted to move on from Njoku, they could first pursue a trade, and there could be plenty of interest in the 2017 first-round draft pick,” Rill continued. “But if Njoku has a huge training camp, Cleveland may decide its best move is to keep him.”
Moving on From David Njoku Only Makes Sense if He Fails to Produce in First Half of Season
Jumping off the Njoku bandwagon now makes little sense for Cleveand in any scenario, be it cut or trade. However, if he struggles and one of the pass catchers behind him comes on strong, the case for the Browns moving on gets considerably better.
Njoku hauled in a career-high 58 catches for 628 yards and four touchdowns last year, per Pro Football Reference. While those are quality statistics, they fall considerably short of Pro Bowl-caliber. Njoku has now played in the NFL for six full seasons. He has never scored more than four times in a year and has produced more than 628 yards just once — 639 yards in 2018.
At nearly $14 million per season, the Browns will have to seriously consider dumping Njoku if he regresses in 2023 with Watson under center from the jump. And parting ways with pricey tight ends is something Browns general manager Andrew Berry has shown he is willing to do.
Cleveland cut bait with tight end Austin Hooper in the spring of 2022 after just two seasons. The team initially signed the former Atlanta Falcons player to a four-year, $42 million contract, after which he produced averages of 42 catches for 390 yards and 3.5 touchdowns over his two campaigns with the team.
The Browns replaced Hooper with Njoku, who the franchise had to pay big in order to keep long-term. Njoku’s numbers in 2022 — which were essentially as good as they ever have been or can be expected to be, considering he will play this season at 27 years old — were a noticeably improvement over than his predecessor’s production. However, Njoku didn’t blow Hooper out of the water comparatively.
Furthermore, Njoku earns more annually than Hooper ever did (approximately $3 million more per season). If he were to take a step back in 2023, and Akins or Bryant were to have a breakout year, history could repeat itself.
Akins is playing on a two-year deal worth $3.9 million total, while Bryant is set to earn $1.75 million in the final season of his four-year rookie contract. If the Browns are comfortable with the idea that either player can provide between two-thirds and three-fourths of Njoku’s production at a fraction of the cost, then the starting tight end’s position with the team grows considerably more precarious.
In any case, Cleveland fans probably shouldn’t expect the Browns to move on from Njoku before this season. Even trading him at the deadline feels like a long shot as training camp approaches at the end of July.
But if he plays poorly and the team’s passing attack continues the struggles that plagued it last season, Njoku will become expendable — and fast.