The 49ers have the best tight end in football in George Kittle, but reportedly were interested in adding Austin Hooper in free agency to form undoubtedly the best 1-2 punch at the position in the NFL. Nothing came of that, of course, as Hooper eventually signed a four-year, $44 million contract with the Cleveland Browns in March.
Though San Francisco never would have been able to offer Hooper that large of a contract -- the team has its hands full with Kittle's next deal -- Hooper's decision to sign with Cleveland could open the possibility of the 49ers adding another talented tight end. Ironically, that tight end happens to play for the Browns.
For now, at least.
Browns tight end David Njoku has requested a trade and would like to be moved before the start of training camp, his agent Drew Rosenhaus told ESPN's Adam Schefter on Friday. Cleveland reportedly expressed that it would prefer to hang on to Njoku, but the fourth-year player apparently has his mind made up.
"It is in David's best interest to find a new team at this time," Rosenhaus told Schefter.
1/2 Browns’ TE David Njoku and his agent Drew Rosenhaus asked today for the team to trade him. The Browns told Njoku they would like to keep him, but Rosenhaus told them he’s intent on a trade. They want a trade before training camp.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) July 3, 2020
2/2 About David Njoku’s trade request today to the Browns, agent Drew Rosenhaus said: "It is in David's best interest to find a new team at this time."— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) July 3, 2020
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The motivation behind Njoku's request undoubtedly is tied to the Browns not only signing Hooper in free agency, but also using a fourth-round pick on Harrison Bryant -- who plays the same position -- in the 2020 NFL Draft.
The timing of the request isn't a coincidence either. On Wednesday, Njoku parted ways with his previous agent, Malki Kawa, and signed with Rosenhaus. Last November, Rosenhaus helped orchestrate a trade of another one of his clients, running back Duke Johnson, out of Cleveland after a similar request.
So, clearly, Njoku isn't satisfied with his current situation and wants out. It's understandable, not just for the aforementioned reasons, but also due to the fact that he was in Freddie Kitchens' dog house last season. Kitchens has since been fired and replaced by former Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski, but apparently the damage has been done.
Njoku, 23, is coming off a down year in which he sustained a broken wrist and a concussion in Week 2. He appeared in only two more games throughout the rest of the season, hauling in five receptions for 41 yards and a touchdown. The prior season, however, Njoku was impressive, catching 56 passes for 639 yards and four scores.
A first-round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, Njoku is extremely athletic. He ranked in the 98th percentile in the broad jump (11-foot-1), 97th percentile in arm length (35 1/4 inches), 90th percentile in the vertical jump (37 1/2 inches) and 80th percentile in the 40-yard dash (4.64 seconds) at the NFL Scouting Combine.
To compare, Kittle -- who went in the fourth round of that very same draft -- ran a 4.52 40-yard dash at nearly an identical size, but otherwise performed worse than Njoku in each of those metrics. Kittle's arm and hand lengths also were considerably shorter.
Now, obviously, Kittle has developed into a force of nature and become the fulcrum of the 49ers' offense. He is a far superior all-around player to Njoku at this point, but if they played together, they'd likely both become even bigger mismatches than they already are.
Clearly, the 49ers like operating out of two tight-end sets. It allows coach Kyle Shanahan to have more creativity in his play-calling, particularly considering Kittle's excellence as a run-blocker. The reported pursuit of Hooper certainly was with that strategy in mind, and although Njoku isn't as good as Hooper, he could be a tremendous addition to San Francisco's offense.
Remember how dominant the New England Patriots were with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez? Both extremely talented players in their own right, they were nearly indefensible when put together. Kittle already is on that Gronk level, but the 49ers don't have a Hernandez-type to go with him. Njoku might be as close as they could get -- without all of the additional baggage.
Njoku will make $1.8 million this coming season in the fourth year of his rookie contract. The Browns also picked up his fifth-year option back in April, which will pay him about $6.4 million for the 2021 season. Though San Francisco doesn't have a ton of cap space to work with -- much of it has been set aside for Kittle's extension -- Njoku offers cost certainty for the next two seasons at a reasonable price. If the 49ers could get him without being forced to give up or get rid of something of major significance, it might be worth their while.
Cleveland.com's Mary Kay Cabot reported Friday that the Browns likely would want a first-round draft pick in return for Njoku. That's downright laughable, and never going to happen. They'll be lucky to get a Day 2 pick from any team in the league, and San Francisco wouldn't do that either. A conditional Day 3 pick, perhaps? Now we're getting somewhere.
That might not be enough to acquire Njoku, but there's no reason for the 49ers to offer more than that. He would be a luxury for San Francisco, not a necessity.