David Njoku

NFL Rumors: Patriots would be perfect landing spot for TE David Njoku

NFL Rumors: Patriots would be perfect landing spot for TE David Njoku

Now may not be the best time for the Patriots to be wheeling and dealing, shopping and swapping.

They remain tight to the salary cap (a little more than $1.2M in cap space according to Pats cap expert Miguel Benzan), the number of players who’ll actually be allowed in training camp remains in flux, the NFL is pilfering one of their third-round picks for the videotaping silliness last season … there are just a lot of moving parts right now.

Still, Browns’ tight end David Njoku? That’s an enticing player at a position of need.

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And he’s sitting right there giving the Patriots a chance to take a mulligan on a spot they ignored in the draft for almost a decade.

Njoku, who turns 24 today (July 10) was a first-round pick in 2017, a year when the Patriots should have been drafting a tight end but took Derek Rivers, Antonio Garcia, Deatrich Wise and Conor McDermott.

Last weekend, Njoku’s agent Drew Rosenhaus let it be known Njoku wants out. That stance probably has something to do with the Browns signing Austin Hooper in free agency but it was also reported Njoku’s been unhappy there for a while.

As enthused as we all got over the Patriots finally drafting tight ends Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene in April, Njoku is barely a year older than Asiasi, who turns 23 next month. And Njoku’s already spent three years in the league with 32 catches for 386 yards as a rookie and 56 for 630 in 2018.

Last year, he played in just four games because of a wrist injury — two in September and two in December.

The Browns picked up his fifth-year option in April, meaning they have committed to him in 2021 for about $6M. Njoku’s 2020 base salary is $1.76M which is the cap hit that would travel with him for this season if he were traded.

The Browns, according to longtime Cleveland.com beat writer Mary Kay Cabot, were still very committed to Njoku when they picked up the option in April.

“(Browns GM Andrew) Berry effectively eliminated that uncertainty (over Njoku’s future role) when he stressed that the tight end was an integral part of the team’s future even though they drafted Harrison Bryant in the fourth round out of Florida Atlantic and signed Austin Hooper to a blockbuster, four-year, $42 million free-agent deal that made him the NFL’s highest-paid tight end at $10.5 million a year.

"To David in particular, our perspective remains the same,'' Berry said. "I have been pretty consistent this offseason in terms of we still have a ton of belief in David. He is very talented.

"Obviously, he was not on the field much last year, but he is a guy with outstanding physical tools, he has proven NFL production and we still think the future is very bright with him here. David has always been and continues to be in our plans, and we are going to continue to add competition all across the roster.”

Njoku, who missed 10 games last season with a broken wrist that required surgery, returned late in the year only to be a healthy scratch for two of the last four games after Freddie Kitchens lost faith in him. In four games, he caught five passes for 41 yards and one touchdown. But the Browns believe that Njoku, 23, still has plenty of upside and will be a big playmaker in Kevin Stefanski’s tight-end-friendly offense, which most often utilizes two tight ends and sometimes three.

The Patriots weren’t able to provide a capable tight end option for Tom Brady in his lone post-Gronk season with the team. And they didn’t do anything of consequence to plan for that period either. But even before signing Cam Newton, the team realized how deficient they were at the position and grabbed Keene and Asiasi.

As committed as the Browns GM sounded in April, there’s no doubt the asking price for Njoku right now will be high. Probably too high for any team to spend on a guy with just this year and next at $6M left on his deal.

But, like Tampa Bay tight end O.J. Howard, Njoku is now a former first-rounder who feels like he’s soon to be on his way out of his present situation.

Despite the drafting of Keene and Asiasi, tight end is a position that shouldn’t be seen as sewn up. It’s going to be critical to the success of a Newton-led offense and the Patriots can make up for lost time if they can convince Cleveland to cough Njoku up.

Mayock: Under-the-radar tight ends, defensive backs could interest Patriots

Mayock: Under-the-radar tight ends, defensive backs could interest Patriots

Until the tidal wave of free-agent moves comes crashing down in March, it's not exactly clear what anyone's needs are in this year's draft. But that won't keep us from guessing with the NFL Scouting Combine taking place this week in Indy.

From a Patriots perspective, they may need a tight end to provide some Rob Gronkowski insurance, especially if Martellus Bennett leaves town for the highest bidder. Defensively, they might be looking at big bodies up front or linebackers. They could also choose to dip into one of the deeper position groups in this year's class -- defensive back -- if they're taking a strict best-player-available approach. 

No matter which spots they're thinking about in this year's draft, the Patriots have a pretty well-defined set of likes and dislikes when it comes to prospect traits. That's what allows someone like NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock -- who held a marathon two-hour conference call with reporters from around the country on Monday -- to make an educated guess on the types of players Bill Belichick will be thinking about in late April. 

At tight end, Mayock thinks Alabama's OJ Howard is a perfect match for New England. He can catch. He can block. He's an athlete. He came up in Nick Saban's program. The only problem is there seems to be very little chance Howard is available at pick No. 32. 

The good news for the Patriots? It's such a deep tight end class, Mayock rattled off a handful of other names who could potentially find themselves in a huddle looking at Tom Brady in 2017. 

"As you drop down and look at the other tight ends after [Howard], there's some really good pass-catching tight ends that would be more like an [Aaron] Hernandez," Mayock said. "You start talking about David Njoku of Miami, he's an absolute freak, and he's also tough enough to learn how to block. Again, I don't know if he gets to the Patriots [at No. 32].

"Evan Engram and Gerald Everett are the two guys that are kind of the move wide receiver tight end. They can play in the slot. Jake Butt had an ACL at Michigan at the end of his season, but he's one of those in-line blockers. Tough guy. Good enough athletically to catch the ball short and intermediate.

"This is a great tight end class. You can get second and third-round tight ends that make a lot of sense. I think down the road a little bit, Michael Roberts from Toledo is a big guy that needs to block better, but he's got some pass catching skills. New England's going to have their choice of a bunch of different tight ends in this draft and get them in the first three rounds."

Defensive back is another area where the Patriots may be able to wait to find an impact player, Mayock suggested. One of the first names that popped into Mayock's mind when it comes to what intrigues Belichick was a safety who played his college ball in the area.

"I think a guy that would have to be interesting to New England is Obi Melifonwu from Connecticut," he said. "Six-foot-4, 219 [pounds], and he's probably going to run sub 4.5 [40-yard dash]. If he runs in that range, I think teams are going to start looking at him as a corner and a safety.

"The reason I think New England, with Matt Patricia, I think they're the best matchup group in the league. Look what they did with Eric Rowe from the Eagles, what they did with [Kyle] Van Noy -- two guys that were kind of cast-offs. They brought them there for matchup reasons. That's what they do. I look at Melifonwu, he looks like a guy that could cover a tight end one week and go out wide and cover a big wideout the next week. I think he'd be interesting.

"[Another] a really good football player that nobody talks about is Lorenzo Jerome of Saint Francis. And what he runs this week is going to be important. But I think he can play both safety positions, and he's really, really a good football player. Like him a lot . . .

"Other names: Des King, who is a corner from Iowa that I think is going to be a nickel or safety, and I think New England always has success moving those guys around a little bit . . . I like Des King; I like Kevin King from Washington who is a corner that can play some free safety; and I like Chidobe Awuzie from Colorado, who (is a corner that) I think might be better off as a safety."