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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 — 1 14-7 Week 4 win over the Vikings, and last Sunday’s 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.
It’s not that Beckham isn’t getting opportunities — through Cleveland’s first five games, only running back Kareem Hunt (20) has more targets than Beckham’s 19, but Beckham has caught just nine of those passes (a 47.4% completion rate) for 124 yards and no touchdowns. And remember, that’s with Beckham playing just three of those games. Beckham is also the team’s most targeted deep receiver, with seven targets of 20 or more air yards. He’s caught just one of those passes for 26 yards.
So, Beckham isn’t the odd man out from an opportunity perspective, but he obviously is when it comes to results. That’s not the way the team perceives it, at least in public. Mayfield was asked once again about this week (it is a constant topic in press conferences), and he amplified the idea that Beckham provides value in ways that don’t show up in pure stats.
“For one, the run game, he was off the charts physicality-wise. We talk about our identity is run first and we are physical team, and we are trying to finish people in the run game and dominate that. You go back and watch him in the run game, and he is physical. You do that, and then go look at Rashard Higgins’ touchdown, and see how many guys are covering Odell compared to Higgy, and you will see exactly what kind of value he brings to us. Whether it is numbers on the outside or whoever wants to put a label on it, we are just trying to win ball games. However that comes, if teams want to roll coverage over the top, he understands that is going to happen. We have to take advantage of his opportunities when they are there because they are not going to come that often. That is the emphasis right now.”
Higgins’ touchdown is a good place to start. The Browns are clearly using Beckham to roll deep and open things up for other receivers. This is both an asset and a liabilty.
Using Beckham as a decoy.
Higgins’ seven-yard touchdown came with 12:46 left in the first half, and it was absolutely facilitated by Beckham’s ability to draw deeper coverage, as offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt pointed out this week.
“Finding ways to get [Beckham] the ball is important to all of us,” Van Pelt said. “He does so much for us. Just thinking about the touchdown to Higgins, three guys covered him. He brings a lot out there. He gets a lot of coverage drawn his way. I know the production has not been there for him, and I am not worried about that. I do think it will come. It is still early in the process for him back on the field so that is not an issue in my mind. The other stuff that he does and in the run game, I know it is not sexy, but he is really effective and he really came down and really put the wood on a couple of those safeties in the game. He does a lot of great things other than catching the ball on the field, but yeah, I would like to see him catch some more balls.”
Here, Beckham [No. 13] had the inside release on the tight two-receiver set, and he took everyone to that side of the defense with him. Higgins [No. 82] will probably never have an easier touchdown in his life, and to his credit, Beckham doesn’t seem unhappy about it at all.
Still, people wanted to know what Stefanski and Van Pelt were doing to get Beckham the ball more often.
“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.
Missing open shots when Beckham is the open receiver.
Now, Mayfield’s deep desperation incompletions near the end of the Chargers game raise other questions. With 26 seconds left, Mayfield overthrew a deep ball to Donovan Peoples-Jones in which Peoples-Jones was double-covered on a post (by the end of the throw, he was triple-covered), and Beckham was running wide open over the middle of the field on a crosser. It’s not the home run you might want, but a completion to Beckham there still gives you a chunk play, Beckham could have easily gotten out of bounds to extend the drive, and he also had a lot of space upfield.
I mean… sometimes, this stuff isn’t as complicated as we make it out to be.
— Doug Farrar ✍ (@NFL_DougFarrar) October 15, 2021
“I do not know where to put the finger on that one,” Van Pelt said, when asked to explain the seeming lack of chemistry. “A lot of times as I said, defense dictates where the ball goes. I have not seen any miscommunications on the field where Odell is in one spot and Baker is throwing to a different spot so I guess I do not feel that as much as maybe it shows up for everybody else because we practice out here three times a week, and it looks great.”
Well, this was one instance in which the focus was clearly on the deep ball, and Beckham had all kinds of space around him as a result.
The Browns aren't using Beckham in ways that amplify his strengths.
Two plays later — on the final play of the Chargers game — Beckham was tied up on a short sideline route on the backside while the Browns went Hail Mary to bunch right. Given Beckham’s aforementioned history of acrobatic catches in and around the end zone, why on earth would you not want him on that wall? There is absolutely no way Beckham is getting the ball on a route like that in that situation, so unless Beckham was wildly freelancing against the call, the call itself took Beckham out of the picture on the Browns’ last chance.
“I think every great receiver, I would be mad if he did not want the ball more – really, that is the reality of it,” Van Pelt concluded. “Those guys need to touch it, and they want to touch it. Human nature is to get frustrated when you do not. Like I said, it is way too early in the season to worry about that in my mind. His plays will come for sure and will probably come in bunches when it does.”
Yes, but again… putting Beckham where the ball is in the game’s most crucial moments would help.
Baker Mayfield and Beckham aren't on the same page.
Not that it’s all the fault of the quarterback, or the guys calling the plays. Beckham is a great receiver, but he’s not a complete receiver. The Browns have been without Jarvis Landry since Week 2 due to an MCL injury; Landry has been designated to return from injured reserve, and though it’s not known if he’ll play against the Cardinals this Sunday, perhaps Stefanski and Van Pelt can use other players on simple slants and drags if Cleveland’s primary possession receiver isn’t good to go.
Last season, Landry led the team on slants and drags with 13 catches on 17 targets for 156 yards and a touchdown. Beckham had seven catches on eight targets for 53 yards and a touchdown. Beckham ranked third in his reduced season on such routes; tight end Austin Hooper had nine catches on 10 targets for 72 yards and a touchdown. When Mayfield tries to get with Beckham on these types of routes, it doesn’t always work — especially when Beckham isn’t aligned to the rhythm of the throw. This fourth-and-2 incompletion against the Chargers is one such example.
“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.”
How do they fix this?
The answer isn’t complicated — the Browns need to put Beckham in one-on-one matchups where he can beat coverage with both his downfield speed and his short-area agility to free himself from defenders.
Beckham’s one deep catch this season, that 26-yarder, came against the Bears in Week 3, his first game back from the ACL injury. The Bears played Cover-1 with deep safety Deon Bush cheating to the trips side. When Higgins ran the intermediate out route, and Bush recovered to help cornerback Jaylon Johnson with the potential Beckham deep route, Beckham responded by cutting his route and giving Mayfield an open target.
“Odell came in and caught the balls that were thrown to him his way,” Van Pelt said a few days after the Bears game. “He looked really good running routes. He drew coverage his way, which helps us in a lot of different ways in the run game and in the pass game, as well. He definitely had an impact out there, and we expect that to continue.”
It’s just as easy to scheme things open for Beckham as it is to use Beckham to scheme things open for everybody else. What that takes in an inherent understanding of what Beckham does well, and how he can take the top off a defense in so many ways.
Getting Beckham open on crossers and switch releases should also work. It very nearly did against the Vikings in Week 4. This was a deep incompletion, but the outcome did not reflect the process. Beckham was in the right slot with Anthony 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,” 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.
“The one at the end of the game [the play illustrated above], I take as much responsibility for that as anybody. As the coordinator, I repped that play multiple times versus a zone coverage, and we have driven the ball into that spot, knowing that the safety and the corner would react, and this was a man look that we have not and I had not prepared those guys for. I take as much responsibility as anybody.”
The other deep incompletion Van Pelt referred to was another situation where the Vikings were in conflict covering both Schwartz and Beckham. 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.
“I cannot sit here and lie like, ‘I do not want the ball,'” Beckham said this week. “Like I tell you every time I get up here, they do not pay James Harden for defense, you know what I mean? He is a shooter. I feel like I am a shooter. As I get down in the red zone and I am running a corner route and three people come with me and Higgy (WR Rashard Higgins) is wide open, I have to know that happens. I know that I bring a lot of attention to defenses on the other end, and other people are going to be open. You just have to live with that. Ultimately like I said, the Chargers are not some slouch team. They are a 4-1 team, and the only team they lost to is a 4-1 team. They were just were a better team that day. Like I said, they did the little things they had to do.”
If you have a shooter, you put the ball in the shooter’s hands. Michael Jordan had to adapt to Tex Winter’s team-integrated triangle offense, but evolution eventually won: He was Michael Jordan, and he was going to get the damned ball. In the end, that made everybody better.
If the Browns are not done with the Odell Beckham experiment, they must avail themselves of every possible way to get him the ball on plays that require his unique skills. If they also want to use him to create openings for others, that’s great, and it clearly works, but the balance — which is out of whack right now — must be restored. The Browns face the 5-0 Cardinals this Sunday; another no-slouch team eager to take advantage of any cracks in the Browns’ offensive façade.