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How Will Odell Beckham Jr. Evolve in His Third Act?

His star rise was so bright and powerful, that it's hard to imagine this being the end of OBJ as we knew him. But what’s next for him after he leaves the Browns?
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Odell Beckham Jr. is nearing the end of his tenure with a second NFL team, this time with less fanfare outside of the celebrity echo chamber he’s cultivated for himself over the last few seasons.

There is little doubt that some of Beckham’s football past was art; it was beyond the sport. His balletic catches, his pregame rituals, the fire on the sideline. In his own way, it was an attempt to light the pilot of a dimming Giants franchise, even if those efforts were misunderstood. On the Browns, paired with cosmic partner Jarvis Landry, it was initially thought his effervescence would be constructively channeled, freed and appreciated. Instead, the energy seemed to invert as frustrations surrounding various injuries and offensive inefficiencies mounted.

Odell Beckham Jr.

So now we are left to wonder what happens to the artist as he approaches his 29th birthday, following a trade deadline with interest in a deal so sparse that one of the most forward-thinking front offices in football couldn’t swing a trade for a former rookie of the year, three-time Pro Bowler and second-team All-Pro on an advantageous, guarantee-free contract. While some of that may have been shrewd planning on the part of Beckham and his representatives, forcing the Browns to grant him the free agency he always desired, and the thin market may have reflected teams’ knowledge of his impending release, the path with which Beckham chose to get there will inevitably raise red flags.

It would seem that, for now, he will have to relegate himself simply to the role of a football player: a man on a team, performing a task. Will he be claimed off waivers? Will he be some end-of-season flier for a .500 club hoping for a jump start?

It is strange to see Beckham here in this space so soon. Despite his habitual, mercurial behavior, his star rise was so bright and powerful that it was difficult to imagine him relegated to a career that may not last as long as that of Chad Johnson, or end unceremoniously, with fewer receiving yards than Golden Tate. It is difficult to imagine him as a training-camp attraction, a roster long-shot or even a DeSean Jacksonian–type role player who returns to our consciousness once every few weeks on a highlight reel when some coverage is busted.

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Beckham changed the receiver position. At one point he was so inventive and deft that he was regularly coming up with maneuvers that defeated the tight, bracketed coverage designed to slow him down. He would draw each team’s premier cornerback and somehow nab passes over their heads on wobbly, end-of-career deep balls from Eli Manning. Against the Bills a few years back, he one-handed a football while fading out of bounds, completely in midair. The pass was ruled incomplete as he ended up miles into the Bills’ sideline, but that didn’t stop an awestruck Rex Ryan (then Buffalo’s head coach) from walking over in the middle of a game to pat him on the back.

But like many artists, who were brilliant and inventive, Beckham was also frustrated when the world around him didn’t match his utopian vision. The Giants were deteriorating, and so he would flail. He went on television with Lil Wayne and said he wasn’t given the chance to be at his best. He took veiled—and not so veiled—shots at one of the most important players in franchise history. In Cleveland, after various setbacks, including a potentially regrettable moment where he begged a handful of other franchises to trade for him after games, his relationship with the Browns reached its nadir this week after Beckham’s father posted an Instagram video of moments when quarterback Baker Mayfield didn’t throw the ball to his son. LeBron James, a friend of Beckham’s, posted that the Browns should “free” Beckham before the deadline. It was the kind of clamorous activity the Browns had hoped to avoid, but that Beckham can instantaneously generate when he feels left behind. He is still buoyed by his star power, much like a musician who hasn’t had a hit in years but still carries the force of a transcendent personality.

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So now we will see what we never expected to be necessary: a climb back from nothingness. If that is indeed what Beckham wants, he’ll have to shed the past and rescind the demands of The Artist, unless, of course, he is signed specifically for what he brings away from the field in an attempt to make another declining franchise relevant—a badge he has disliked wearing in the past. He’ll have to be O.K. with whatever part of the offense gets lopped on his plate amid an NFL rushing renaissance. He’ll have to be a version of himself we never imagined he’d have to be after writing about him for so many years as an iconoclast, not just a wide receiver.

A third act may not look the same, not even close. But it will help us sort out the kind of legacy he’ll leave behind: that of the tortured artist, or that of the one who has a revelation and evolves with the times. 

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