In 22 games with the Cleveland Browns, Odell Beckham Jr. has not come anywhere close to producing like the transcendent player he was with the New York Giants. Injuries have played a large part in that, but so has the play of Baker Mayfield. When Beckham has been healthy, his tape shows a player who still creates easy separation and constantly gets open downfield, and now with Mayfield playing the best football of his career, Beckham should return to dominant form in 2021.
Beckham played the 2019 season with nagging hip and groin injuries that required offseason surgery. He wasn’t bad that year, but was not the same explosive playmaker that the Browns thought they were getting.
The 2020 version of Beckham was much, much closer to the player he was in New York. He terrorized the Baltimore Ravens secondary in Week 1 and practically single-handedly beat the Dallas Cowboys in Week 4. Beckham was doing his job, and he was doing it at a high level.
Unfortunately, the six games that Beckham played coincided with the worst stretch of Mayfield’s pro career, so the production did not match the tape for Beckham.
And the talking point that Mayfield drastically improved as soon as Beckham went down in Week 7 is just plain lazy. Head coach Kevin Stefanski simplified the scheme for much of that game until Mayfield had regained his confidence. Following that, Mayfield showed improvement, but was still inconsistent from Weeks 8-12.
From Week 13 on, Mayfield was one of the NFL’s very best passers. This was due to the natural progression of the offense and Mayfield’s growing comfort in a brand new scheme, not because of the absence of an elite pass-catching talent. As if Beckham has some sort of aura around him that causes his quarterback to lob uncatchable passes his way.
Speaking of uncatchable passes, Beckham has seen quite a few of them. Per Pro Football Focus, out of Beckham’s 130 targets in 2019, 27 of them were deemed uncatchable, which tied for the league lead.
That percentage skyrocketed to 19/43 in 2020, so only 55.8% of Beckham’s targets were able to be caught.
That is just horrible. Yet many still blame him for Mayfield’s struggles, instead of the other way around. Beckham got open, often downfield. Mayfield just didn’t see him, and when he did, he had almost a 50% chance of not giving Beckham a shot to actually bring in the pass.
The argument that Mayfield felt pressured to force the ball to Beckham is easier to believe, but it still doesn’t hold much water. Beckham was open so much that it would have been better for Mayfield to target him almost exclusively.
Reception Perception tracked Beckham in the 91st percentile at generating separation against man coverage, and in the 94th percentile against press.
Both those skillsets were entirely lacking in the rest of the Cleveland WR corps, and it absolutely killed them against the Kansas City Chiefs in the playoffs. Beckham’s presence would have made a world of difference in that game.
Marcus Peters. Marlon Humphrey. Williams Jackson III. Kendall Fuller. Ronald Darby. Trevon Diggs. Xavier Rhodes. Joe Haden. All corners against whom Beckham ran free. But because his QB didn’t perform well, little of what Beckham did registered for many onlookers.
Moving forward, health will be paramount for Beckham. He’s reportedly come back incredibly strong from his torn ACL, but that won’t be known until he takes the field. And even then, it’s unfair to expect things to be great immediately. He’ll need time to get his feet under him, adjust mentally, and to be properly integrated into the offense. But once that happens, assuming he’s the same player he was in 2020, Mayfield should have a big-play threat at his disposal, one who can stretch the field, turn a slant into a touchdown, and get open against any defensive back.
Beckham may never get the volume of targets that he received in New York, because there are far more legitimate threats in this offense. However, his per-play efficiency should skyrocket, coinciding with an improvement by Mayfield in the same category. Beckham should be playing with the best quarterback of his football career in 2021.
While injuries may have taken their toll on his body, he can still be one of the league’s most effective pass-catchers. Now, was it wise for the Browns to pin their Super Bowl hopes on that happening? Perhaps not, but that is the situation they find themselves.
Beckham will be under a great deal of pressure this season, both advancing the Browns passing game and proving to the world that he’s still Odell Beckham Jr., Hall of Fame talent. The tape shows he is still that player. Now, the production should follow.