As we revisit the Cleveland Browns’ passing game, having discussed their receiving corps last month, we must once again open with the status of quarterback Deshaun Watson, who was subjected to a three-day disciplinary hearing in late June with post-hearing briefs due on July 12. With training camp now just over a week away, we should expect to learn the length of Watson’s suspension at any point. Speculation has the QB’s suspension ranging anywhere from a few games to a full season, but until we get official word it’s meaningless chatter.
With Baker Mayfield now a member of the Carolina Panthers, veteran Jacoby Brissett stands ready to make however many starts are needed to cover Watson’s suspension. The journeyman has started 37 games in his career across three franchises, compiling a 14-23 record and a 36-to-17 TD:INT ratio in that time. Brissett is as prototypical a game manager as you’re like to find on an NFL roster — he averaged 218 yards and a touchdown per game in five starts with the Miami Dolphins last year. Cleveland also will look to add another veteran passer should Watson miss time.
Although clearly the Browns’ passing attack would be much more potent with Watson at the helm, the strength of their running game should keep defenses from focusing on the pass. To that end, we saw Case Keenum (now with the Buffalo Bills) go 2-0 in his two starts for Cleveland while throwing for 375 yards and three TDs in a role like what Brissett would fill. Those are modest numbers, but outside of wide receiver Amari Cooper there aren’t a lot of proven targets, so the tight ends should see action.
Cleveland placed the franchise tag on Njoku back in March before ultimately working out a four-year deal worth $56.75 million, a hefty chunk of change for a tight end that has averaged 36 receptions, 428 yards, and 3.5 touchdowns per year in four full seasons — he appeared in just four games in 2019 due to a wrist injury that required surgery, so those numbers weren’t included in his averages. Njoku also asked for a trade prior to the 2020 campaign but eventually rescinded it.
Njoku’s best season came in 2018, when Mayfield as a rookie, hauling in 56 passes for 639 yards and four touchdowns. He was nearly invisible in 2020 but rebounded for a respectable 36-475-4 effort last year with those four TD grabs leading the team. Production wise, Njoku’s contract is out of whack, even considering his blocking ability, which suggests that the team believes the 26-year-old is about to break out as a weapon in the passing game.
A fourth-round pick in 2020, Bryant has appeared in 31 of a possible 33 games over his first two years, catching 45 passes for 471 yards and a half-dozen touchdowns.
While Njoku received the money that says he’ll be top dog at the position, Bryant could be in for a bump as well after Austin Hooper joined the Tennessee Titans this offseason; Hooper caught 84 balls combined during the past two years, which is production that’ll need to be replaced by someone. Bryant could surprise if given an earnest chance should Njoku get hurt at some point.
Fantasy football outlook
Follow the money: there’s no way the Browns would make Njoku one of the NFL’s five-highest paid players at his position without envisioning a substantially bigger role that what we saw from him over the past two seasons. The question is whether you believe he’s capable of producing the type of numbers that would justify that deal?
If Watson dodges a season-long ban, Njoku could be viewed as a fringe TE1. With Brissett, he’d be more of a midrange TE2. As for Bryant, he’d only enter the picture if Njoku were to miss time.