“Hubris is one of the great renewable resources.” – P.J. O’Rourke
Let’s just be perfectly honest here – the terms “Browns” and “elite talent” have rarely been synonymous the last 22 years. Sure, there’s been a few Browns players that matched that description, like LT Joe Thomas or WR Josh Gordon (whose talent was clearly not his biggest issue), but the Browns’ limited success for most of those years has been due to a couple glaring factors: Poor scouting/drafting, which has led to mistakes like QB Brandon Weeden, and just plain old bad luck, which has resulted in jettisoning supposed blue-chip prospects like WR Corey Coleman that never panned out despite their physical gifts. Recent Browns drafts have been much more fruitful, but it bears noting the team has been taking advantage of the trade and free agent routes to supplement their roster a bit more than years past, partially because of that recent draft success.
Enter mercurial WR Odell Beckham Jr.
Beckham’s extensive physical gifts and decided weirdness are nothing new in NFL circles. His NFL highlight reel demonstrates his often jaw-dropping ability to snare seemingly impossible-to-catch passes, usually with one hand, and usually for touchdowns. The term “explosive”, overused in sports jargon, really does apply to Beckham’s uncanny ability to accelerate and separate from defenders, which has enabled him to produce at least 1,000 receiving yards in five of his seven years as a pro (his other two seasons, including 2020, were cut short by injuries). The general consensus around the league is that Beckham is indeed an elite talent, and most teams would jump at the chance to pick up a player of his production.
Enter the Browns.
No one’s faulting the Browns for their 2019 acquisition of Beckham via trade, even though he cost them some notable draft capital (#17 overall pick, a third-round pick and S Jabrill Peppers). Wideouts of Beckham’s caliber typically would cost at least as much if not more in trade, and at the time, it seemed like Beckham might be the final piece to complete the team’s transformation from also-ran to contender. The Browns had already traded for Beckham’s best buddy and college teammate in WR Jarvis Landry, so the team seemed a natural fit for Beckham in the locker room as well as the playing field. With second-year QB Baker Mayfield coming off an impressive rookie campaign, adding two Pro Bowl wide receivers, particularly one with Beckham’s credentials, signaled the Browns were finally serious about contending, having built their home-grown talent to the point where adding free agents was a luxury and not a dire need, as had often been the case in previous free agency forays. Beckham reported to the team and said all the right things. The sky, as they say, was the limit…or at least a decent playoff run or two until post-rookie salaries kicked in.
Beckham’s weirdness, as mentioned above, is generally accepted as part of the package, resulting in the “OBJ” nickname, which he reportedly cherishes. This is the same guy that was held largely in check for the first half of a game against the Ravens in 2017, only to finish with 8 catches for 220 yards and two scores, including a game-winning 66-yard TD grab on fourth-and-1 with 1:26 remaining. During the same game, Beckham was seen agonizing and bickering with medical staff and coaches over a supposed hip pointer, disappearing into the locker room for long stretches before he was injured, and yes, proposing marriage to a kicking net. This is apparently considered normal for Beckham, whose proclivities and personal life reportedly hinge on…distasteful practices, the most prominent of which he denies. Regardless, he’s still considered worth the gamble as long as his production remains consistently excellent.
Simply put, it hasn’t. The overall results since Beckham’s arrival in Cleveland have been less than encouraging. Between the national sports media’s disdain for the Browns historically and its unceasing quest to blur the lines with tabloid journalism, Beckham’s various travails have been overreported and overanalyzed from nearly the moment he first donned a Browns uniform. Lots of sports-heavy pubs began asking the same sorts of questions: Do we really care if Beckham chooses to wear his $3,000 Rolex on the field? Is his claim of a lingering hip injury valid, or was he just dogging it? Does he have other excuses to make?
On the field, Beckham limped his way to 74 catches and 1,035 yards in a tumultuous 2019 campaign in which his “clutch” abilities virtually disappeared; Beckham was often missing, figuratively, during the fourth quarter of many games, where he had established his reputation in New York as perhaps the best late-game wide receiver in the NFL. He was often terse and dismissive with local media when asked about his lack of numbers, adding to an already frustrating season for the Browns in which they were labeled as underachievers. With a new head coach and new system on the 2020 horizon, observers figured Beckham could be redeemed in Cleveland; the machinations of former head coach Freddie Kitchens were criticized heavily both internally and elsewhere, and the change to new hire Kevin Stefanski was seen as imperative for the team’s progress, and if it happened to benefit Beckham as well, so much the better.
It just wasn’t much better.
The 2020 season ended hopefully for the Browns, who produced an 11-5 record and managed a playoff win over the AFC North division-winning Steelers. The majority of that production happened without the services of Beckham, who shut it down after seven underwhelming games due to a torn ACL. The fact that Mayfield showed much better chemistry with the rest of his wideouts after Beckham’s injury has not been lost on the Cleveland fanbase and front office, and Beckham’s trade value may not progress much if he remains in Cleveland this season. Letting him go now for a decent return would have to be a consideration. Beckham’s contract isn’t prohibitive as far as his overall value; at roughly $15 million annually, he carries no dead money implications in 2022 and 2023 and could easily be traded in 2021 to a team with nominal cap space and a need for his services. Free agency officially commences in less than a week and teams are jettisoning established, expensive veterans from their rosters as this is being written, so it remains to be seen how the overall market will look for wideouts or at other positions. If the Browns are truly comfortable with their WR corps sans Beckham, there’s no real reason to keep him around, especially if the trade return could net them a top defender or two in the upcoming draft, which they sorely need.
Of course, there’s always Beckham’s obvious talents. Is that still enough to keep him?