David Njoku Is a Rare NFL-Bound Talent from a Rare Family

Sean Tomlinson@@SeanGTomlinsonNFL AnalystApril 11, 2017

Dec 28, 2016; Orlando, FL, USA; Miami Hurricanes tight end  David Njoku (86) reacts after  a touchdown in the second half against the West Virginia Mountaineers  in the Russell Athletic Bowl  at Camping World Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports
Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

When you go to bed tonight, there will be one final thought for the day. 

It'll probably be about something mundane tied to everyday life, like a conversation with a co-worker, or visions of the new burrito place down the street that's going to be the highlight of your weekend. The most random, sporadic thoughts can flood the mind as you slowly ease into shutdown mode.

David Njoku also has those thoughts because he's human, and surely even the most chiseled, NFL-bound athlete still craves the warm comfort of a burrito. But more often, the former Miami Hurricanes tight end has much different visions dance in his head during those moments just before sleep.

He thinks about stiff arms and hurdles. He thinks about jukes and spins. He thinks about sprints into the open field. He thinks about a game played entirely in his mind.

"I try to meditate a lot and envision myself after the catch, whether it's a juke or stiff arm or hurdle, or even a front flip," Njoku told Bleacher Report. "I do a lot of envisioning what I'll do next and then try to take it to the field.

"I try to do that every day, even when I don't have a game. Before I sleep, I'll close my eyes and go through the play mentally in my head. It's not exhausting because I truly love the sport of football, so I find it interesting. Meditation calms me down when I'm stressed out. The sport is my getaway."

He's still playing while nearly asleep. He's probably making posters out of defenders then, too.

When he's awake, Njoku is an imposing force at his position. Defenses learned that the hard way in 2016, his first college season as a full-time tight end.

Njoku finished fifth among tight ends with 698 receiving yards and scored eight touchdowns. He did that on only 43 receptions, a per-catch average of 16.2 yards. His efficiency and consistent chunk yardage also led to a touchdown just over once every five catches.

He enters the NFL draft as one of the highest-rated prospects at his position and is widely being projected as a first-round pick. Bleacher Report's Matt Miller has Njoku slotted at No. 22 to the Miami Dolphins, with only Alabama tight end O.J. Howard slightly above him at No. 18.

Njoku's name will be called early in the draft, and he will arrive in the NFL at the tender age of 20. He'll be a 6'4", 246-pound seedling.

Is he even close to a finished product? Of course not, and that's what makes possible future coaches daydream about what lies ahead for an already physically gifted pass-catcher.

David J. Phillip/Associated Press

Njoku was a wide receiver as recently as 2015. His large-bodied frame was ideal for the transition to tight end, but Njoku wouldn't have been the first or last oversized wideout to look the part as a tight end and then fail to grasp the intricate mechanics of blocking.

"The hardest part was the blocking and three-point stance, and blocking opponents who are much bigger than me," Njoku said of the switch. "I was never scared to block. I actually find it interesting and fun."

Interesting and fun. Those aren't usually the words you hear from a young player as he looks back on his time preparing to block a bulked-up defensive end or linebacker.

Blocking was interesting to Njoku because any doubts in his ability were taken as a personal challenge. He studied and worked on the details in practice. Then he made it fun because, well, Njoku was damn good at it.

"A lot of people just assumed that because he was a leaner tight end he probably isn't a great blocker," said Todd Hartley, Njoku's position coach at Miami. "Well, turn the tape on. The kid blocks extremely well because he's so strong and smart. He knows the proper footwork and hat placement. He knows the proper leverage, too, and then he gets his hands on you, and he's so naturally strong that he can move you.

"I think the criticism of his blocking kind of pissed him off. He can get better in every area. But blocking is one of the things we thought he did really well. We wanted to run his way because we knew he was one of our better blockers. We never questioned how good of a blocker he was."

Like Hartley, Michael Carlucci is familiar with Njoku's ability to take instructions, process them and translate that coaching to the field quickly. Except the field Carlucci worked with him on was different.

Carlucci was Njoku's high school track and field coach at Cedar Grove High School in New Jersey. Njoku competed in several events, including the long jump and triple jump. But the area where he really excelled was high jump, which isn't one you often hear associated with future NFL players.

"As a coach, you just start drooling when you see someone like that, with the physical gifts he has," Carlucci said. "He was one of those kids who was just so gifted that if you said 'do this,' he'd say, 'you mean like this?' and then he'd do it. He's very cerebral and processes things differently."

There are plenty of former college sprinters scattered around the NFL. And a fair number of star college longer jumpers too, highlighted by wide receiver Marquise Goodwin, who has participated in the Olympics once and nearly qualified a second time.

High-jump success is rooted in a sort of athletic grace. First you need speed and a quick burst of forward momentum, and Njoku can generate that in abundance. Then comes the challenging part, and where each tiny movement can dramatically affect results. Your body naturally slows down as you gather yourself to jump. The task of the high jumper is to minimize that slow-down by harnessing their power and energy and then propelling themselves vertically.

"You need to convert horizontal force to vertical," Carlucci said. "You're basically almost stopping and then jumping."

That requires an immense amount of lower body strength and explosion. Clearing a bar of any height shouldn't have been possible for Njoku, as he had a 220-pound football body at the time in high school.

Yet there he was in 2014, returning home with a gold medal around his neck. He had won the event at the New Balance Nationals Outdoor with a jump of 6'11".

Njoku kept growing and adding weight when he moved on to the University of Miami. His focus was football, but he still participated in the high jump with little training compared to his fellow competitors. As recently as January 2016, the massive tight end finished third in a major track meet, which is when Njoku also set a personal best at the college level.

It's important to absorb how not normal Njoku's high jump results were even back in high school at a weight of 220 pounds. That in turn helps to understand why he's also not remotely normal on the football field.

The top high jumpers in the world are usually much leaner and at least 30 pounds lighter than Njoku's high school weight. For perspective, Canadian Derek Drouin won men's high jump gold at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games, and he weighs 182 pounds. Even that's heavy, as Qatar's Mutaz Essa Barshim finished second and weighs 154 pounds, while Ukrainian Bohdan Viktorovych Bondarenko took home bronze at a weight of 176 pounds.

Njoku doesn't just have unique athleticism at his size. No, he has baffling athleticism, and Carlucci said his high-jump background seen on game days goes beyond simply leaping over defenders.

"He has such great body control," Carlucci added. "He has plenty of power, but a lot of people can't harness that and use it productively."

Nov 5, 2016; Miami Gardens, FL, USA; Miami Hurricanes tight end David Njoku (86) leaps over Pittsburgh Panthers defensive back Terrish Webb (2) for a touchdown during the first half at Hard Rock Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

His power shows up when he bursts down the seam, using the 4.64 speed in the 40-yard dash that helped him to test in the 93rd percentile at the combine. Perhaps most of all, his power is on full display when he quickly accelerates after the catch to bust through tackles and keep galloping downfield.

That's where Njoku shined as a tight end in 2016 and more broadly as an athlete. He averaged 11.2 yards after the catch per reception, according to Pro Football Focus, over a yard more than any other draft-eligible tight end.

"He's so natural, he's so strong and his leg drive is so great, and it's really hard to wrap him up," Hartley said. "He's just so twitchy. He can put his foot in the ground and make someone miss, and he's just powerful. He can stiff-arm and throw people. It's just hard to bring that dude down out there."

Njoku showed his explosive athleticism during combine testing when he was one of three tight ends to pass a broad-jump mark that had stood since 2006, as Rotoworld's Josh Norris noted.

Combine results for top five tight ends
Tight end40-yard dashVerticalBroad jumpBench press3-cone drill
O.J. Howard4.5130"121"226.85
David Njoku4.6437.5"133"216.97
Evan Engram4.4236"125"196.92
Bucky Hodges4.5739"134"18DNP
Adam Shaheen4.7932.5"121"247.09
Source: NFL.com

There are still areas to improve on, though, which is expected from a prospect who won't be able to legally celebrate on draft day with an alcoholic beverage.

Njoku has shown great progress and willingness as a blocker, especially considering he's logged only two seasons playing the tight end position after redshirting in 2014. But PFF ranked him 36th out of 77 draft-eligible tight ends for his run-blocking.

The most significant area to address, however, is cutting down on his drops. Njoku dropped eight balls over the last two seasons, according to NFL.com's Lance Zierlein, a drop rate of 11 percent.

Hartley said that issue doesn't stem from slippery hands, which would be a greater cause for concern. Instead, the drops come from a good place, if that makes sense.

Njoku just wants to do so damn much—and do it now.

"He's so good with the ball in his hands, and as soon as he gets it he wants to do something right away," Hartley said. "He wants to make somebody miss, or run somebody over, or hurdle somebody, or outrun them.

"So sometimes he might lose a little eye discipline on the football. It's never a hand issue. He has great hands. But he's so eager to get that ball and do something with it that he might turn his head quickly and drop a pass here and there that we've worked on constantly. But other than that, the kid is a pretty well-rounded tight end."

So well-rounded that one NFL scout had some rather high praise:

We'll know on April 27 whether Njoku can rise to the mountaintop of his position and become the top tight end ahead of Howard, Evan Engram of Ole Miss and a list of other strong candidates in a loaded class.

Njoku could have stayed in school for another year to develop a little more and then enter the draft in 2018, when the tight end class won't be as daunting. But Hartley said that's not his style.

"He wanted to go up against the other great tight ends and be successful," he said. "He just loves to compete. Whether it's football or anything else, he just wants to be the best at what he does."

Loving to compete sounds like a draft-season cliche at first. And it is, but then when Njoku himself repeats it again and again, there's some added weight behind it. Competition is firmly ingrained into the Njoku DNA, leading to success from every one of his brothers and sisters.

All eight of them.

Njoku grew up in a Nigerian household with nine children, the oldest of which was born in his parents' native country. That's Innocent, and he's now a neurosurgeon in upstate New York after finishing medical school at Cornell.

That's just where it begins, as even after David is drafted, the title of highest-achieving Njoku will still be hotly debated. Chelsea is a nurse in New Jersey, Faith is in medical school too, and Gladys has a mechanical engineering degree. Oh, and Evidence is coming up behind David at Miami as a 3-star wide receiver recruit who will begin to play with the Hurricanes for the 2017 season.

Gladys has some impressive hops as well and won the event twice at the Division III level.

David's other extended family is Tight End U and the long line of successful Hurricanes tight ends. That list includes Jeremy Shockey, Greg Olsen, Kellen Winslow II and Jimmy Graham.

"They're all great players, and I'm blessed to be put in the same category as them," Njoku said. "I'm just trying to keep the legacy going."

He can build on a few legacies in the coming years, including his thriving family tree. But first and foremost, Njoku can add to his own.

He's already broken the high-jump mold as an athlete who had no business gliding over a nearly seven-foot-high bar and elevating his colossal football body. Now he can be the next prospect to reshape how we view the tight end position.

Tight ends aren't supposed to move like Njoku. Or jump like him and gather yards after the catch. But that's the package he'll bring to the NFL.

It could put him in the strange position of growing to become the center of an offense and still not quite being the most successful person in his own family just yet.

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