Browns Lose Top Target in Passing Game Ahead of Watson Debut

Deshaun Watson

Getty Images Deshaun Watson of the Cleveland Browns.

Quarterback Deshaun Watson will make his much-anticipated return to the field this Sunday in Texas, but will do so without one of the Cleveland Browns‘ top pass catchers at his disposal.

Head coach Kevin Stefanski confirmed on Friday that tight end David Njoku would be absent from Watson’s debut against the Houston Texans after missing practice all week with a knee injury.

“He wasn’t able to practice this week, so it makes it hard when you can’t,” Stefanski told reporters. “If he was able to go today then you say he has a chance, but [he] wasn’t able to go today.”

Stefanski added that the injury occurred late in last week’s game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, in which Njoku made a spectacular one-handed touchdown grab on a fourth-down play with just seconds remaining in regulation. The tight end’s score forced an overtime period and ultimately led to a Browns’ victory, which kept the team’s narrow hopes of an AFC playoff berth alive for at least another week.

David Njoku Plagued by Injury Issues Throughout Browns’ Season

David Njoku, Browns

GettyTE David Njoku of the Cleveland Browns catches the ball for a touchdown as LB Devin White of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defends during the second half of a game at FirstEnergy Stadium on November 27, 2022 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Nick Cammett/Getty Images)

Njoku has already missed two games for Cleveland in 2022, a number that would likely have been three except for a fortunately-timed bye week.

The tight end suffered an ankle sprain against the Baltimore Ravens on October 23, which left him in a walking boot and hobbling around on crutches following the game. He subsequently missed the Browns’ blowout win over the Cincinnati Bengals and blowout loss to the Miami Dolphins, with the team’s bye week sandwiched in between.

Njoku was solid after his return, amassing seven catches for 46 yards and a touchdown over the following two outings. His numbers will presumably see a spike as soon as he takes the field with Watson, a three-time Pro Bowler with the Texans before that organization benched him in 2021 and the NFL suspended him for 11 games to start this season.

On the year, Njoku has amassed 41 catches for 462 yards and two touchdowns across nine appearances, per Pro Football Reference. He is currently third on the team in both receptions (41) and receiving yards behind Amari Cooper and Donovan Peoples-Jones, respectively. However, extrapolating out his averages, Njoku would be second in catches and nearly even with Peoples-Jones in yards had he played the entire season healthy.

Browns Can Still Make Run at Playoffs With Watson Under Center

Deshaun Watson

Getty ImagesQB Deshaun Watson will start his first game for the Cleveland Browns against his old team, the Houston Texans, on Sunday, December 4, 2022.

How good Watson will actually be coming off nearly two full years out of the huddle is anyone’s guess. But if the 27-year-old can recapture his previous form quickly, Cleveland should be a force to be reckoned with down the stretch.

The Texans are the worst team in the NFL by a wide margin, both in terms of win/loss record and point differential. There is likely to be considerable pressure, scrutiny and dislike hurled Watson’s way, as he returns to the field in the same city where all of his troubles began. However, atmosphere aside, there probably isn’t a better roster against which to re-acclimate to regular season NFL action.

If the Browns handle their business in Texas as seven-point favorites, the team will move to 5-7 on the season and allow Watson another week to get ready for back-to-back division matchups on the road against the Bengals (7-4) and at home against the Ravens (7-4).

A three-game winning streak is an extremely tall order for a player who hasn’t taken an official snap under center since 2020, but the schedule does put the Browns in a position to play their way back into the thick of the AFC playoff chase by stringing together a handful of wins.

Cleveland’s final three games include a home contest against the New Orleans Saints before consecutive road games against the beatable Washington Commanders and Pittsburgh Steelers to finish out the year.

While the playoffs remain a long shot, a win over the Texans and even splitting the matchups with the Bengals and Ravens would position the Browns for a shot at a 9-8 record. Watson’s greatest value, other than a skill set that will enhance his wide receiver talent and force opposing defenses to play honestly against one of the best rushing attacks in the NFL, is the hope of success he brings with him into the Cleveland huddle — both for the remainder of this season and the next several to follow.

That hope takes its first breath this Sunday in Houston, even if it does so without the aid of the Browns’ top tight end target in Njoku.

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