The Cleveland Browns appear poised to utilize an offense this year that will feature formations with multiple tight ends.
For reasons that aren’t all that clear, a lot of fans and some in the media have this preconceived notion that a football team needs a pile of talented wide receivers, but one good tight end is plenty, as if it’s a rule that only one tight end can be on the field at a time. So, when players like Jeremy Maclin and Eric Decker come available, everyone wants the Browns to sign them, seemingly ignoring the fact that they not only have receivers they like and want to develop, they also have tight ends that they really like and would like to utilize heavily in the passing game.
One of the big focuses for both OTAs and minicamp has been the tight end position; with good reason. The Browns drafted David Njoku in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft and there have been no shortage of clips of him showing off his athleticism catching passes from Browns quarterbacks.
Njoku is clearly slated to be a featured part of the offense, growing pains and all, but all everything is suggesting that Seth DeValve will as well. One of last year’s fourth-round picks, DeValve showed flashes of what he could be last season when he wasn’t being maimed due to inaccurate throws from Robert Griffin III and out with an injured hamstring.
Tight ends coach Greg Seamon has been not been shy about his excitement for DeValve, both before the NFL Draft and since with Njoku now part of the picture. If the excitement is justified, it stands to reason the Browns are going to use them both and put them on the field at the same time.
Both are incredibly athletic players that can give the Browns any number of offensive looks. Njoku is still growing into his body and developing as a blocker, but Hue Jackson views him as a Y, playing inline, able to block and impact in the passing game. They can also split him out, move him around but they really want him to be able to operate as an extension of the line.
DeValve, who lined up at wide receiver, tight end and H-Back at Princeton, is slated to play the U, an unattached tight end and really just operates as a space player. Just like in the small sample size he had last year, DeValve will be moved around on the field in an effort to create mismatches.
The two combined make it so the Browns will have two players around 250 pounds, who can run, create separation and make plays with the ball in their hands. This is a difficult dynamic for opponents to defend.
Those who are able to match up with effective player of that size and speed are not easy to find, let alone having more than one. Adding in the different ways formations can create an advantage not only makes the defense have to account for them in various spots, but it also can create opportunities for other offensive players.
Here are a couple basic examples.
Here is a simple trey formation. Njoku is in line with DeValve and Corey Coleman on the same side, giving the Browns a ton of athleticism on the same side of the field. It also presents an opportunity for Kenny Britt to get single coverage on the weak side of the field.
Coleman has largely been practicing at the X. The reason he is at the Z for the purposes of this discussion is because off the line of scrimmage, he now becomes a player that can move in motion. Given his skill set and athleticism, it seemed prudent to make it so he can always be moved presnap.
This formation immediately creates a problem due to the fact that having both tight ends on the same side of the field and spread out, the defense has to decide how they want to use their players to cover it. The challenge with DeValve is if a team just tries to put a corner on him, he’s just too big.
A safety or linebacker seems far more realistic, but if it’s a linebacker, they are exposed on the weak side because all of their linebackers are bumped over to cover him and Njoku. If a safety covers him, it could provide opportunities to make plays over the top.
Additionally, that size on one side of the field can obviously be used to run the ball. And the way the Browns are set up with their offensive line, running with power to the right makes a ton of sense.
Joe Thomas, Joel Bitonio and J.C. Tretter are all excellent athletes with good movement skills. Kevin Zeitler and presumably Shon Coleman are power players, are not going to pull much and instead, try to maul the opponents in front of them.
If Njoku can just be functional as a blocker, it’s easy to create a seam to the right with Coleman and Zeitler. DeValve should be able to block someone in space. Meanwhile, whether it’s power, zone or counter, the Browns can always be pulling one or a pair of the linemen from the left, giving them a numbers advantage.
In the event the Browns can run to the right effectively, it forces the defense to load up to the strong side and now there’s space to operate left. The tailback, be it Isaiah Crowell or Duke Johnson, now has a ton of space to operate to the left and those mobile linemen to the left can either run stretch blocking or pull around to take out players in space.
Here, is an ace formation with a tight end on each side, but DeValve in the slot. This can present a major challenge for the defense covering the tight ends toward the middle of the field, especially if they want to try to bracket them, creating opportunities for single coverage on the perimeter.
The other benefit with this formation is both DeValve and Coleman can go in motion, either to load up on one side, line up a block or simply try to reveal the coverage. For example, if Coleman goes in motion to the left side of the field, does the defense have the corner follow him or adjust in a different manner? Either way, that could create the opportunity to put a player on a matchup they prefer or rub to generate separation.
Let’s call this a wing formation with Njoku inline and DeValve lined up one yard by one yard off of him, keeping him off the line. Yes, the Browns can try to put DeValve inline, but his lack of height is not ideal for that situation.
Defensive ends especially tend to have long arms in addition to being bigger, stronger players so shorter players like DeValve can have a difficult time getting into the body to make a block. Giving him space, even if it’s only a small amount in this case, may enable him to avoid the end and be able to pick up a linebacker. Or, depending on where the play is going, he may go out and overwhelm a defensive back. In either scenario, getting him moving is the best way to help him as a blocker as well as extending his range.
This is a natural running formation as they have a lot of size on the right side of the field. It can also be a nice play action passing set up because DeValve could be matched up with a corner who has outside leverage. If DeValve can win, he suddenly has a good amount of space to the sideline and room to work with the ball in his hands.
Running combination routes with the tight ends can be a real problem. And obviously, Britt and Coleman on the left can create its own set of problems, especially with Coleman is in the slot. They can quick passes or combo plays. For example, the tailback and offensive line run counter to the right while the receivers run a smoke screen. The quarterback, based on the defense, will decide whether to hand it off or throw the screen.
Jun 13, 2017; Berea, OH, USA; Cleveland Browns tight end Seth DeValve (87) makes a catch during minicamp at the Cleveland Browns training facility. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
DeValve is able to go in motion here as well, potentially sliding out to the right in an attempt to isolate the corner. They can also just bump Njoku, DeValve or both outside to create a side of the field with two tight ends with the other two receivers, forcing the defense to make choices.
With Gary Barnidge, now released, the Browns were not afraid to isolate him on the perimeter. There’s no reason they should be afraid to do that with either Njoku or DeValve. Both are good players in space and in the case of DeValve, he has experience running perimeter receiver routes during his time at Princeton. It’s all about making the defense think, having to decide how they want to respond to these looks.
The last area where these two can become key is inside the red zone and particularly down by the goal line. They can bring in a third tight end, seemingly be Randall Telfer, the tight end room’s best blocker, to give them a little more power up front. They can try to bull opponents with the run as well as beat them with play action. Telfer could end up with a touchdown simply because teams are focused on everyone else.
Unquestionably, the Browns would do this in no small part to get the ball in the hands of Njoku and DeValve, two players they hope can be a big part of their offense. But all of this creates opportunities for the running game. The team obviously made a significant investment up front by adding J.C. Tretter and Kevin Zeitler while also signing Joel Bitonio to a substantial extension. They hope they can line up and pound the ball, but using formations and motion to create problems can only make it easier to do. Anything that makes the defense think is going to help the offense.
So much is made of the wide receiver position and how the Cleveland Browns have to address it. The Browns seem to be preparing to use their tight ends to fulfill some of the roles receivers would, giving them a different dynamic with their size and strength while still having speed on the field. It remains to be seen if this plays out as well as the Browns hope, but the possibilities are at least intriguing enough to explore.