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In March, 2019, the Cleveland Browns sent a 2019 first-round pick, a 2019 third-round pick and safety Jabrill Peppers to the Giants for the services of receiver Odell Beckham Jr. In five seasons with the Giants, the 2014 first-round pick out of LSU ranked 11th in the NFL in receptions (390), 10th in targets (622), seventh in receiving yards (5,476), and third in receiving touchdowns (44). He also became the fastest player in NFL history to reach both 200 career receptions and 4,000 career receiving yards. Beckham did all that despite playing in just 44 games through those five seasons — he played in just four games and had just two starts in 2017 due to an ankle injury, and a quadriceps issue cost him the final four games of the 2018 season, his last with Big Blue.
Beckham also left behind a litany of amazing catches that seemed out of the skill set of most other people playing his position.
During his time with the Browns, Beckham’s productivity has been far more in question. 2019 was the usual good-season-when-healthy — 74 catches on 133 targets for 1,035 yards and four touchdowns in a dysfunctional offense led by head coach Freddie Kitchens.
In Week 7 of the 2020 season under new head coach and offensive shot-caller Kevin Stefanski, Beckham — who had caught just 23 passes on 43 targets for 319 yards and three touchdowns — suffered a torn ACL that ended his season. The recovery from that injury also cost him the first two games of the 2021 season, and he made his season debut against the Bears in a 26-6 win in which Beckham caught five passes on seven targets for 77 yards.
That seemed like a nice way to get back in the swing of things, but in the next two games — a 14-7 Week 4 win over the Vikings, and a heartbreaking 47-42 loss to the Chargers — Beckham caught just four passes on 10 targets for 47 yards. Quarterback Baker Mayfield’s inability to connect with Beckham as the Chargers erased and overcame Cleveland’s 27-13 third-quarter lead seemed the last straw for a lot of Browns observers. Now, the only talk about Beckham seems to be what the team could get in trade for him.
Things got no better from there. Beckham caught five passes on eight targets for 79 yards in Cleveland’s 37-14 Week 6 loss to the Cardinals, two passes on six targets for 23 yards in the team’s Week 7 win over the Broncos, and just one pass on two targets for six yards in last Sunday’s loss to the Steelers. On the season, Beckham has 17 catches on 34 targets for 232 yards and no touchdowns. The most stunning number in Beckham’s season is three — he has just three catches on throws of 20 or more air yards this season on 10 targets for 75 yards. That Beckham leads the team in deep targets by a fairly wide margin — rookie receiver Anthony Schwartz ranks second with six — tells you a lot about the state of Cleveland’s passing game in 2021.
Now that this has all come to a head, and the the Browns have released Beckham, what can we tell from Beckham’s limited opportunities regarding his best fits with other NFL offenses?
Beckham can still take great defenders on unfortunate coverage trips.
(AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)
This deep incompletion on a switch release with Schwartz against the Vikings in Week 4 is pretty decent proof that, whatever went wrong with Beckham and the Browns, talent on the receiver’s part is not the problem. He can still embarrass some of the league’s best defenders when given the optimal schematic opportunities. On this play, Beckham was in the right slot with Schwartz outside. When Schwartz took cornerback Cameron Dantzler out on the deep over, it was up to safety Harrison Smith, one of the best in the NFL, to work Beckham through his route.
This, he did not do. Beckham just demolished Smith on a nasty out-and-up, and had Beckham not stumbled on the turf, this would have been an easy six.
“They were very close,” offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt said after the Vikings game of the Mayfield-Beckham deep connection. “Really, if you complete two of those throws, Odell is well over 100 yards, and everybody is not saying a word. That is tough. Deep balls are tough to complete. Your completion percentage is lower on those, but we were just off a hair. The one ball he had down the right side, he had to step up and maneuver some pressure, which was a tough throw, that one was close.”
They were also close on this play. This time, Beckham was the iso receiver to Mayfield’s front side, and Schwartz made it more complicated with a deep over from trips to the other side. Smith was in a bind, Beckham beat Dantzler… and Mayfield underthrew the ball.
Beckham’s last target as a member of the Browns was this deep post late in the game. Beckham had an easy opening downfield, and Mayfield couldn’t hit him in stride. Plays like this tend to validate Beckham’s frustration, and the questions about the Browns’ passing game remain, with or without Beckham.
“I would tell you first and foremost, I need to do a better job,” Stefanski said after the Steelers game. “I really do. I need to make sure that I put him in position to make some plays, and I did not do a good enough job certainly yesterday. Having said that, he gets a lot of attention from the defense. There were a bunch of plays where the safety is cheating to him, and that opens up opportunities for other guys. I think of an early third down that we had where the post safety stayed to the boundary side because he was cheating towards Odell, and we hit a big play to Jarvis [Landry]. His effect on our offense is there, but I do need to do a better job of making sure that the ball makes its way into his hands.”
The “Beckham as a decoy” thing has had legs all season, and while it’s been effective, it was also on Stefanski to create opportunities for Beckham to also get the ball, and he really never did that in a meaningful sense.
Beckham can create openings for other receivers.
(AP Photo/Kevork Djansezian)
Rashard Higgins’ seven-yard touchdown catch against the Chargers was absolutely facilitated by Beckham as the focus of Los Angeles’ defense. Beckham had the inside release on the tight two-receiver set, and he took everyone to that side of the defense with him. Higgins will probably never have an easier touchdown in his life, and to his credit, Beckham doesn’t seem unhappy about it at all.
“I think you call plays with him in mind,” Van Pelt said. “We call a lot of plays with him in mind. There is no doubt our game plans are focused around him and a lot of the ways where we can get him the ball. The defense sometimes will not let you do that. I do not think it is a matter of us not trying to get him the ball as much as we definitely have that in the back of our mind when we game plan. Sometimes the defense does not allow you to throw him the ball. Just staying patient. Stay within our system and process. We feel really good about everybody who is out there right now but really appreciate his effort out there. We are all in it to win it at the end of the day.”
But setting your most dynamic receiver up with more favorable concepts would seem to accentuate the winning process. It never really did in Cleveland. Perhaps it will elsewhere.
Beckham is dangerous on short passes, if his quarterback can get them there.
(Scott Galvin-USA TODAY Sports)
Earlier in the season, when receiver Jarvis Landry missed time with a knee injury, Beckham was sometimes tasked to take Landry’s more possession-related targets. It didn’t always work, and this fourth-and-2 incompletion against the Chargers is one such example of both the stilted chemistry between Mayfield and Beckham, and Beckham’s hypothetical ability to get yards after such catches… if they’re catches. Beckham motioned from left to right, revealing man coverage. and had Mayfield hit him in stride, this was probably a touchdown.
“Just one of those where I kind of gave it a slight pump fake to the flat so he took his eyes off, and it just kind of crept up on him,” Mayfield said of this play. “It is just one of those things that it is a rare play for him to have one of those freak things. Just get better from it.”
The Browns never got better from it, though this six-yard screen against the Steelers (Beckham’s last catch as a member of the Browns) is something he can do all day. Why the Browns wouldn’t test Pittsburgh’s coverage to that side with a deeper Beckham route is conjecture lost to the vagaries of time.
Beckham can still be a factor in a complex vertical offense.
(Scott Galvin-USA TODAY Sports)
If he’s in the right kind of offense, Beckham still has the potential to create explosive plays — both as a deep receiver capable of tying defenders in knots, and as a target on short and intermediate routes where he can use his after-catch abilities to create. He will need a confident quarterback who can throw with anticipation and velocity to all levels of the field, and an offensive coach who will tailor the passing game to his strengths. That never really happened in Cleveland, which is more an indictment of the Browns’ run-based, heavy personnel offense than it is a repudiation of Beckham’s remaining skill set.
We’ll see where he lands, but in the abstract, Odell Beckham still has it.