Aside from Charles Clay, the Buffalo Bills have not received much production from their tight ends the last couple of years. The position is not an imminent need for the Bills in the upcoming NFL Draft, but the University of Miami’s David Njoku is an enticing enough prospect that could perhaps tempt general manager Doug Whaley to select him rather than fill a need. Njoku, a redshirt sophomore, has been hailed as the next great athletic hybrid tight end from “The U”, following in the footsteps of Jimmy Graham, Greg Olsen, and the others that came before them. Buffalo wouldn’t dare take him 10th overall, and there’s a good chance that he won’t still be around when they select again in the second round (44th overall), but if he is, he’d be a steal. Let’s examine the former Hurricanes tight end.
Njoku grew up in New Jersey, where he starred in both football and track and field. A wide receiver for Cedar Grove High School, Njoku earned second-team all-state honors. In his other sport, he took home the 2014 national championship in boys high jump.
Redshirted to begin his career at Miami, Njoku caught 21 passes for 362 yards and a touchdown in 2015 as a redshirt freshman, and then significantly improved his production across the board his sophomore season, reeling in 43 passes for 698 yards along with eight touchdowns.
His career numbers may not look all that impressive at first glance, but they become much more attractive when you consider that he accumulated them while only starting nine out of the 26 games that he played in as a Hurricane.
Njoku is quite the athletic specimen. While not a former sprinter, he does have somewhat of a speed training background dating back to his days as a high jumper. His speed along with his size (6’4”, 245 pounds) makes for a lethal combination. He’s an obvious mismatch for linebackers trying to cover him downfield, and he’ll even occasionally blow by bigger safeties protecting deep. His big body is perfect for shielding defenders trying to get between him and passes thrown his way; something that every quarterback is appreciative of. Slotted by various draft experts as being a late first-round to early second-round pick, Njoku could potentially shake things up by burning up the track in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine next month.
Much of the excitement surrounding the underclassmen lies in that he is fairly raw. The fact that he started just a limited number of games in college would tend to indicate that despite how good of a player he currently is, he may still not have a good handle on how to properly make use of all the physical gifts he possesses.
Like many fast and athletic pass catchers, Njoku does not run great routes. Perhaps relying more on his speed and size, he’ll often round off his cuts instead of sticking his foot in the ground, planting, and then shifting his hips in the direction that he wants to turn. That may work sometimes at the next level, particularly against less-versatile linebackers, but as soon as teams discover that weakness on tape, he’ll win those battles less often.
Where Njoku does excel route-wise, is running down the seam. As mentioned, he’ll blow by pretty much every linebacker that attempts to run with him downfield, and he’ll beat safeties occasionally. He’s what one would call a ‘seam-buster’, and at the very least, next season he should see a good chunk of passes thrown his way because of this ability.
Open space is an area where Njoku is quite dangerous, as such, Miami routinely dialed up screens and quick hitches to take advantage of his elusiveness. Conversely, his route tree was pretty simple. It didn’t feature a whole lot of variation.
Njoku does a good job of consistently putting his hands out in front of him and attempting to use proper catching technique to bring in passes. This is something that a lot of guys at his size struggle with, especially at the college level. But with that said, drops were a problem for him. Over the course of his career, Njoku failed to come away with the catch at an 11 percent clip. By comparison, Eric Ebron, who led all NFL tight ends in drops in 2016, posting a drop percentage of 8.2, per sportingcharts.com. Of the Hurricanes alums that he’s being compared to, Graham dropped passes at a rate of just 4.2 %, while Olsen was nearly perfect with a stellar 0.8%.
I would have liked to see more jump balls thrown to Njoku, particularly in the red zone where his height is a major advantage. For whatever reason, Miami decided not do this very often. In their defense, there were a fair amount of times on tape, where Njoku’s timing is off while jumping, unnecessarily skying for passes when there was no need to.
Yards after catch
It’s not very often that a tight end can be described as being elusive, they tend to be, or for quite sometime anyway, use to be guys who were not associated with speed, quickness or escapability. Njoku is definitely not one of those guys. Seam routes may be where he ends up being used immediately, but NFL teams will quickly find out that he’s also quite dangerous when you clear space for him.
Take for instance this play here against Duke where he grabs a pass after breaking away from his quick-hitting in route, before preceding to rumble 58 yards to the end zone.
This touchdown against Pittsburgh highlights an underrated part of Njoku’s YAC game: his leaping ability and just shire desire to get past you.
Hurdling defenders is quite common for Njoku, these sorts of plays show up quite often on tape. What he does in the air, along with his tools for slipping past you, is what seperates him from the pack. Rob Gronkowski and Travis Kelce use brute force to get by guys, but there are not too many tight ends hat are athletic enough to do it the way Njoku does.
As much as the position is evolving, it is still essential that players know how to block well. Njoku definitely struggles in this area which may be another reason as to why he made such few starts at Miami. From his high school days as a wide receiver, it appears that Njoku has carried over some bad habits. (I’m not saying every wideout can’t block, but let’s be real, there are a good amount who block like they’re playing patty-cake, or try to divert their defender’s eyes away from the backfield with the routes that they run.)
Njoku’s main problem, and this applies to both run and pass blocking, is that his technique is not very good. Mainly, he releases too high coming out his three-point stance.
He’s already at a disadvantage strength-wise, so often times he’s driven back instead of vice versa when trying to block. Squaring up lower at the point of attack would help him immensely.
Njoku is a good tight end. Right now Alabama’s O.J. Howard appears to be the consensus top player available at the position, but the fact that Njoku is also being projected as a first-rounder tells you all you need to know about the separation between the two. Multiple tight ends have not been selected in the first round of an NFL draft since 2006, with Vernon Davis and Marcedes Lewis.
The popular NFL comparison for Njoku seems to be to those of his Miami brethren, in particular Olsen, but I’m skeptical of whether Njoku can become the quality run blocker, or the route technician Olsen is. And no doubt he’ll have a hard time attempting to match, or better, Olsen’s blazing 40-time of 4.51 seconds.
While Njoku appears to be faster, I think Jordan Reed is the better professional comparable. The two are of similar stature, Reed is 6’2”, 246 pounds, and Reed also migrated late to the position as he was a highly rated dual-threat quarterback coming out of high school.
Like Njoku, Reed also had a slow start to his college career, but has since blossomed into one of the NFL’s best tight ends. When healthy, the 2017 Pro Bowler causes griefs for defenses because of his versatility. Reed can line up at a variety of spots : H-back, the traditional TE spot, out wide; it doesn’t matter. His previous experience as a running quarterback, enables him to be a weapon in space. Washington loves to dial up quick-hitters, screens, as well as trick plays, to take advantage of Reed’s versatility.
If Njoku turns out to be anything like Reed, whichever team that drafts him will get a player that may need a little while to develop, but over time should turn out to be well worth waiting on.