Mere days after Antonio Brown was traded to the Raiders, setting the NFL offseason ablaze, an equally big-name wide receiver was dealt.
That playmaker would be none other than Odell Beckham Jr., five-time 1,000-yard wideout and three-time Pro Bowler. And unlike in the Brown trade, the Beckham Jr. deal forced NFL analysts and fans to completely reconsider the team that received him.
For all the jokes I and so many others have told over the years, it’s time to face facts: the Cleveland Browns are a threat in the AFC. Go down the list of players on both sides of the ball. Even the most pessimistic critic would have to admit they look—on paper—to be in a position to take the AFC North.
But are they a true Super Bowl contender? Is Beckham Jr. the missing piece that will transform the offense?
It’s definitely up for debate, even if the Browns did only go 7-8-1 in 2018. They were 5-3 after firing coach Hugh Jackson and moving on to the play-calling of Freddie Kitchens as interim offensive coordinator.
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After building a great rapport with young quarterback Baker Mayfield and helping the Browns win three of their last four contests, he was rightfully named head coach. Now he has another weapon to give to Mayfield.
But is it enough? Is this unit ready to take such a big leap so soon? After all, there’s not a lot of experience to speak of and folks are bound to get worked up too much after a deal like this.
And if the Browns are even contenders, are the odds still at a good value for this team?
I’ll take a dive into the roster and OBJ’s impact on it.
What Beckham Jr. Brings to the Table
There’s no denying the consistent production Antonio Brown had while in Pittsburgh. But it could be argued that no receiver did more last season with so little as Odell Beckham Jr.
The New York Giants were at times abysmal on offense. At best, they were erratic, and that’s only during the few moments they actually got creative. The offensive line was a dumpster fire and Eli Manning showed he is past the point of needing to retire.
This left OBJ with little to do when the passing game—especially farther downfield—never opened up. So needless to say, compiling over 1,000 yards receiving and having comparable catch rates to fellow studs like Brown and Mike Evans was quite the achievement.
Now he arrives in Cleveland with a rising star at the quarterback position, Baker Mayfield. The former Heisman Trophy winner had a talented—if not always sure-handed—receiving core in 2018. With Beckham, he’ll be getting an absolute game-changer.
Football Outsiders had Beckham Jr. ranked sixth in yards above replacement in each of his first two seasons in the league. Though he was injured for much of 2017 and failed to get good quarterbacking on the bookend seasons, Beckham is widely considered to still be a top-five wideout.
Some might even consider him the best of all.
In the red zone, Beckham Jr. had 19 receiving touchdowns in just his first three seasons. He may be shy of six-feet, but he still can beat plenty of talented corners for jump-balls on the end zone.
But what Beckham Jr. will do best is spread the field. This is a guy who ran an unofficial 4.31 at the combine back in 2014. He’s very much still in his prime in terms of speed and continuously has shown so against some of the top-performing CBs the league has to offer.
Putting him on an island, especially with deep routes, is one of the toughest assignments in the league. It’s hard to calculate his worth on long passes these days due to an injury-ended 2017 and the lack of a downfield attack for the Giants last year.
But expect Kitchens and Mayfield to take their fair share of shots beyond 20 yards in 2019.
There are a few concerns with OBJ. He was only 26th in yards above replacement the year before he got hurt and 22nd last season. That’s adjusted for a lot of variables, but the lack of quality throws from Manning is hard to quantify.
Still, he’s not quite as sure a thing as Brown, Evans, or Michael Thomas has been. But that’s an elite company to be in, and those receivers (even Evans) had better quarterbacks.
As far as attitude issues go, Beckham Jr. has been able to compile impressive stats even in games where tantrums have been a problem. There were reports that said the Giants considered him a “pain in the ass” and were more inclined to trade him because of that.
But even if he is disgruntled, a change of scenery and a few more deep balls could change all that. And he’ll be back across from college teammate Jarvis Landry at the other WR spot.
How the Offense Stacks Up
Where else could I start here but with Mayfield?
There is a small contingent of people who are still on the fence with him. He was only 25th, according to FO, when it came to QBR. That was out of the 34 QBs who threw at least 200 passes. For a reference, Eli Manning finished 27th.
But Mayfield also experienced changes at head coach and offensive coordinator during what was his rookie season. And he was playing behind an offensive line that gave up 31 sacks in its first seven games. That unit, minus Joe Thomas for the first time in this decade, needed a lot of development.
And yet the quarterback still ranked 12th among passers in yards above replacement. That was above Kirk Cousins, Carson Wentz, and just a touch behind Russell Wilson. Not bad company for a first-year guy.
He made his share of mistakes. 14 interceptions, including multiple three-INT affairs, will need to be cleaned up. But his reads were correct more often than not and he became more comfortable in the pocket as the year went along.
And this doesn’t include the strong leadership qualities and moxie he possesses.
There’s a lot for him to improve on. Preventing costly mistakes and throwing better outside the pocket will be keys of improvement for him going forward. But the Browns will finally not have to worry about who’s starting for them on opening week.
And Mayfield will have a slew of receivers to throw to. I already broke down Beckham Jr. But Landry was a great security blanket for Mayfield last season. He is a strong possession receiver and runs some of the most precise routes in the game.
Being able to depend on both the location and hands of a receiver as a young QB is indispensable.
- And then Mayfield also has David Njoku, a raw talent at tight end that is starting to reach his sky-high potential. He’s another one of those insanely-difficult targets at the position that might as well be called a flex receiver. He has that kind of athleticism and quickness, just on a 6’4-250lbs frame.
- Add WR Antonio Callaway to this group of threats too. He has the potential to be one of the better deep-ball threats in the AFC. The drops have been a problem for him in the past, but he’ll be relied on to take the top off the defense way more than he will on any quick-punch routes.
- Throw in Rishard Higgins and plenty of production from at least two running backs out of the backfield, and this passing game is set. It’s just a matter of how well it’ll all click this season.
Same goes for the running backs.
Kareem Hunt is no doubt one of the better backs in the NFL and creates an almost-indefensible situation for defenses in combination with the wideouts and tight end. He’s a strong contributor out of the backfield and had the fourth-best value (according to FO) out of all RBs in 2017.
He led the league in rushing that year as a rookie. But of course, in the middle of another successful campaign last year, he was released by the Chiefs after video of him shoving and kicking a woman inside a hotel was caught on tape.
So how long he’s suspended will go a long way to knowing how effective this offense will be. There are other incidents he’s been accused of as well, so it’s hard to speculate how long he’ll be out.
Until then, Nick Chubb is a very capable lead back with 5.2 YPA and nearly 1,000 yards as a rookie. And Duke Johnson adds a wrinkle on passing downs and also had 5.0-plus YPA.
Last but not least is the guys who will block for these two and Mayfield.
Even after the poor start the offensive line had in 2018, they grew up quick. After those 31 sacks they allowed in the first seven games, they only gave up seven in the last nine. Bringing in veteran Eric Kush should give them even more depth too.
This is another young component of the team that will have some more growing pains. But there’s no doubt that left guard Joel Bitonio and center J.C. Tretter will be considered for future Pro Bowls.
How About the Defense?
Despite how loaded the Browns are on offense, it’s worth mentioning that this defense also has big pieces to build around.
They finished as the 12th-best group in terms of efficiency and a lot of that had to do with the run-stoppers. Jamie Collins will need to be replaced up the middle, as he was the team’s lead tackler last season.
But the line still looks disruptive by finishing in the top-10 in stopping runs at or behind the line of scrimmage. They were also top-10 when it came to short yardage runs on crucial downs.
But he needed a partner in crime to take some of the pressure off. He looks to have that with Olivier Vernon, who’s missed nine games over the past two years and has still posted up 13.5 sacks. Keeping him healthy after seven years in the league will get tougher, but he’s a solid No. 2 rusher at the edge.
And in the back-end, Cleveland will have a need a corner. That may be where they go with their second-round pick. If they can find someone who sticks on the other side of 2018 first-rounder Denzel Ward, they’ll be in great shape on that side of the ball.
In the Beckham Jr. trade, the Browns sent safety Jabrill Peppers to New York. He was more than serviceable in the secondary but wasn’t anyone who couldn’t be replaced at a position that was deep in the free agent pool.
Getting Earl Thomas in free agency would’ve been huge, but he went to the Ravens. That was a fairly large piece of bad news in the middle of so much good report.
It’s Cleveland’s biggest concern now, but one that can be handled.
To Bet or Not to Bet?
Right now, Cleveland is at +1400 to win the Super Bowl on MyBookie. That’s in-line with the Chicago Bears and LA Chargers. Only the Patriots, Chiefs, Saints, and Rams have better odds.
I see the Browns potentially having a top-five offense in this league with the potential to be even better in the future. But the defense still has notable holes to fill and it seems like those defenses don’t matter too much until the big games come around in January and February.
Having Beckham Jr. will make Cleveland one of the more fun teams to watch. But the youth still has growing to do, especially in the case of Mayfield. So I would hold off on getting too excited aboard this bandwagon.
But the fact they are tied for the fifth-best Super Bowl odds, yet are at +150 odds to make the playoffs, baffles me. Pittsburgh still has questions at linebacker and corner. The Ravens have a long way to go replacing key defenders and developing their aerial attack.
So the Browns seemingly look like the best squad all-around in this division. They should definitely be the favorite, as they are at +175 on MyBookie.
Odell Beckham Jr. might not be the final piece of a Super Bowl team in 2019. But this team, barring significant setbacks from Mayfield, will make the playoffs.