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A new important data point entered an already well-defined tight end market several days ago. The Browns signed David Njoku, who was given a $10.931 million franchise tag in March, to a four-year, $54.75 million contract. The maximum value of the deal is $56.75 million thanks to $500,000 of annual incentives in which Njoku makes $250,000 each year he is selected first or second team All-Pro. The amount earned doubles to $500,000 if the Browns also make the playoffs. The deal contains $28 million of guarantees, of which $17 million was fully guaranteed at signing.

Njoku is now the NFL's fifth-highest-paid tight end by average yearly salary at $13,687,500 per year although he caught just 36 passes for 475 yards and scored four touchdowns in 2021. The Browns didn't give Njoku the contract because of his past performance. His best season was in 2018 when he had 56 receptions, 639 receiving yards and four touchdowns.

Njoku got the deal because the Browns are expecting his production to substantially increase in a passing game no longer including wide Jarvis Landry and tight end Austin Hooper, who were released in March. Deshaun Watson, who led the NFL in passing yards in 2020, is a major upgrade over Baker Mayfield at quarterback.

Njoku is the clear cut top tight end with Hooper out the picture. Cleveland would be getting its money's worth from the contract if he can start coming close to replicating or exceeding what the two of them did last season from a receiving standpoint. Hooper and Njoku combined for 74 receptions, 820 receiving yards and seven touchdowns in 2021. 

Cleveland can get out of the contract after two years with Njoku making $25 million if he doesn't take a big step forward statistically. There's an offset with the $3 million of his 2024 base salary, which becomes fully guaranteed next March on the third day of the 2023 league year. Presumably, Njoku would be able to sign with another team for at least $3 million if released in 2024 so the Browns would be able to recoup the 2024 guarantee from this contract.

Dalton Schultz
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The Cowboys and Dolphins can't be thrilled about Njoku's contract because of the impact the deal should have on any respective negotiations with tight ends Dalton Schultz and Mike Gesicki, who were also given a $10.931 million franchise tag. The deadline for franchise players to sign long term is July 15 at 4 p.m. ET.

Njoku's $13,687,500 average per year should become the salary floor on a long-term deal for Gesicki and Schultz. Njoku doesn't measure up statistically to either player.

Schultz had a career year in 2021 with 78 catches, 808 receiving yards and eight touchdowns. He was more productive last season in 17 games than Njoku was over the last two seasons combined in the 29 games he played. Njoku caught 55 passes for 688 yards with six touchdowns. Schultz has 23 more receptions, 120 more receiving yards and two more touchdown catches than Njoku.

Additionally, Schultz is one of four players to rank in the top 10 in receptions, receiving yards and touchdown catches among tight ends since the start of the 2020 regular season. He is fourth, seventh and tied for sixth in these respective categories. The other three tight ends are Mark Andrews (Ravens), Travis Kelce (Chiefs) and Darren Waller (Raiders).

Gesicki's 2021 production was also better than Njoku's over the last two seasons. His 73 catches and 780 receiving yards, both career highs, were 18 more and 92 more, respectively, than Njoku.

There's a dynamic with Gesicki that doesn't exist with Schultz. Gesicki could follow in Jimmy Graham's footsteps and file a grievance to be classified as a wide receiver instead of a tight end with his franchise player designation. The difference in the two tags is $7.488 million as the 2022 wide receiver number is $18.419 million.

Under the NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement, franchise tags are determined by the position where the player participated in the most plays during the prior season. According to Pro Football Focus, 54.78% of Gesicki's 827 offensive snaps in 2021 were in the slot, 11.97% were as an in-line tight end and 30.74% were out wide.

Graham lost his grievance in 2014. Arbitrator Stephen Burbank ruled that Graham was a tight end when lined up in the slot within 4 yards of an offensive lineman, which he did on more than 50% of his plays with the Saints in 2013. 

Njoku's deal probably doesn't give Schultz or Gesicki ammunition to supplant Kittle as the league's highest-paid tight end at $15 million per year. Kittle dramatically reset the tight end market in August 2020 by getting nearly 43% more than Hooper's $10.5 million per year, which had been the standard at that time. Kittle was one season removed from setting the single-season receiving yards record for tight ends, which has been broken by Kelce, and followed it up with a second consecutive 1,000-yard season in 2019. 

Three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald became the league's first $20 million-per-year non-quarterback in 2018. In nearly four years, no interior defensive lineman has been able to surpass the $22.5 million per year that the Rams gave him. A similar phenomenon happening, where Kittle remains at the top of the tight end salary hierarchy for at least another year, wouldn't be too surprising. 

The best bet to replace Kittle might be the drastically underpaid Waller. He got a new deal during the 2019 season when he had two years of service for free agency. Waller was going to be a restricted free agent in 2020 where a second-round tender would have been likely. He signed through the 2023 season in which he gave up three unrestricted free agent years valued at $9,013,667 per year.

Waller has outperformed his contract. During the 2019 and 2020 seasons, Waller averaged nearly 100 receptions for just over 1,170 receiving yards with six touchdowns. He was on his way to a third straight 1,000-yard season in 2021 before being derailed by a knee injury last Thanksgiving.

Waller indicated that his agent was working on a new contract during his recent appearance on the Ross Tucker Podcast. Hunter Renfrow, who caught 103 passes last season, may be ahead of Waller in the Raiders' contract-extension pecking order because 2022 is the final year of the underrated wide receiver's four-year rookie contract. 

The Lions have demonstrated a willingness to lock up core first-round picks at the early possible instance -- after three NFL seasons -- inking Pro Bowl center Frank Ragnow to a deal last year. An extension this year for 2019 eighth overall pick T.J. Hockenson shouldn't be dismissed.

Hockenson earned Pro Bowl honors in 2020. His 2021 season was cut short after 12 games because of a thumb injury that required surgery. 

The range for a Hockenson extension was the $12.5 million per year Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith both got from the Patriots in 2021 free agency and the $14.25 million per year the Eagles gave Dallas Goedert during the middle of last season prior to Njoku's signing. The Njoku deal will surely be a topic of discussion should any Hockenson contract negotiations take place this year.  

Two tight ends who have the potential to reach the Njoku salary stratosphere in 2023 free agency with productive 2022 seasons are Evan Engram and Irv Smith Jr. 

Engram's disappointing 2021 campaign with the Giants, where he caught 46 passes for 408 yards with three touchdowns, didn't prevent him from getting a one-year, $9 million deal from the Jaguars, which has $8.25 million fully guaranteed. He can make as much as $10 million through incentives. The base value of the deal isn't much less than the $9.293 million it would have cost the Giants to designate Engram as a transition player.

Engram could be in the right place to showcase himself for 2023 free agency. New Jaguars head coach Doug Pederson's offense with the Eagles was tight end friendly. During his five seasons as head coach in Philadelphia, Zach Ertz averaged close to 80 catches per year, including setting the NFL single-season receptions record for a tight end with 116 in 2018.

New Vikings head coach Kevin O'Connell is confident Smith will be a big part of Minnesota's offense this season. A breakout season was anticipated for Smith in 2021 before he was sidelined the entire year after tearing the meniscus in his right knee during Minnesota's final preseason game last August. Smith will be in line for a big payday in 2023 with a breakout 2022 season.