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NFL Draft

Is Baker Mayfield Better Without Odell Beckham Jr?

  • The Draft Network
  • October 27, 2020
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Earlier this week in a group text I’m in with some friends from college, a question was asked.

“Who is your favorite player that doesn’t play for a team you follow?”

There were some great answers that a lot of us shared a mutual love and appreciation for. Some players are so good and such a joy to watch you can’t help but consider yourself a fan of them individually, even if you wouldn’t say you’re a direct fan of the team they play for. I had a few answers to the question, but one of them was one of the most entertaining, talented, and game-changing players in the NFL.

Odell Beckham Jr.

As a Florida grad, I got my first look at Beckham when the Gators hosted the No. 3 team in the nation, the LSU Tigers, back in 2012. Wearing No. 3 for the Tigers that day was none other than Beckham. I had heard of him, but never really paid much attention to him. Beckham ended the day as the Tigers’ leading receiver with 78 yards on four catches while also contributing on special teams. Though it was a quiet performance and the Gators ended up winning, you could feel Beckham’s presence on the field.

It was that day I became a fan of his, and as an NFL draft nut, that followed into the 2014 draft class a year later. Beckham was drafted No. 12 overall by the New York Giants, and even those who were high on Beckham as a playmaker were surely still in awe of what happened in the years that followed. Beckham went on to record more than 1,300 receiving yards and double-digit touchdowns in each of his first three seasons in the NFL, earning Rookie of the Year, All-Pro, and Pro Bowl honors throughout. With all that under his belt at just 23 years old, the sky was the limit for Beckham. We figured we were watching what might be one of the best of all time in the making.

Beckham suffered an ankle sprain at the start of the 2017 season, and then a broken ankle weeks later sidelined him after just four games played. It was the first major injury he had suffered. But the following year he recorded more than 1,000 yards in just 12 games before being sidelined for the last four games of the season due to a quad injury. It appeared all was back to normal. But that changed quickly after.

Beckham was traded to the Cleveland Browns the following offseason, and that’s really where our topic today begins. His quarterback during his time in Cleveland has been former Heisman winner and No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield. In his lone full season with Mayfield, Beckham once again eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark, but only recorded four touchdowns. As the Browns were struggling to find an identity on offense, there was a feeling that Beckham was being underutilized, or at least not being put in the best places to succeed like he was when he was with the Giants.

With new head coach Kevin Stefanski at the helm, things were supposed to be different this year. Stefanski had made stars out of the likes of Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen during his time calling the shots in Minnesota. The thought was he could do the same with Beckham and his teammate Jarvis Landry.

Through the first six games, the Browns were 4-2, but their wins came against easier opponents. When their backs were against the wall, the offense just did not look like it could move the ball the way the talent on paper told you it should. Mayfield continued to struggle against competent defenses, including two blowout losses to the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens.

This past Sunday, the Browns faced the Cincinnati Bengals. Mayfield started the game 0-for-5 through his first two drives with an interception. That interception was thrown Beckham’s way. On the interception, Beckham was sprinting back to try to tackle the defender who now had the ball, and in the process injured his leg. After the game, it was revealed that Beckham had torn his ACL. News of losing such a talented player would normally, without question, be devastating. But after Beckham’s injury, Mayfield completed 15 straight passes, eventually throwing five touchdowns in the game to win in thrilling comeback fashion. 

That brought people to ask the question: Are the Browns—specifically Baker Mayfield—better without Beckham?

Mayfield’s efficiency and production went through the roof with no Beckham on the field this past Sunday. He had a near-perfect passer rating and was spreading the ball around with four of his five touchdowns going to different receivers—in Beckham’s place, plenty of new names stepped up.

One of those new names was rookie sixth-round pick Donovan Peoples-Jones.

Let’s first look at the only target Beckham got in the Bengals game. In it, Beckham was on the outside as the No. 1 isolated at the bottom of your screen. It was 2nd-and-4, which anytime it’s second down and short that’s where the cliche “the whole playbook is open” comes into play. With only four yards to gain for the first down, you can afford to take a shot, knowing that if you don’t get it, you still have a favorable third down. 

But the problem with this throw, and an argument many are making with Mayfield and Beckham, is that Beckham was never really open on this play. The outside cornerback was giving a ton of cushion to the 9-route at the snap, and the reason for this is because it limits how much space Beckham can create deep down the field—if he can’t even get even with you, he can’t get very far past you. That throw was never open, but Mayfield loaded up for it anyway. If you’ll look to the backside, you’ll see Landry actually had a soft spot between the zone.

It’s all hindsight, and football doesn’t work as slow to process and as easy to make the “right” decisions like that the way we explain it. But it does give way to the narrative that Mayfield might have been forcing plays to Beckham, especially since Beckham was never really in a position to have that ball thrown his way (plus it was poorly thrown).

Peoples-Jones took over as an outside receiver when Beckham went down. As a player who scored in the 99th percentile in both the broad and the vert and ran a 4.48 40-yard dash, this is a role that suited him. 

On his touchdown catch, Peoples-Jones was able to get behind his defender thanks to some quick and explosive acceleration off the snap. This allowed him to get even with the defender quickly and then create that separation over the top. This isn’t something Beckham had in his lone target, and that might have been due to some predictability of the route and Mayfield wanting to force it.

Are the Browns a better team with Beckham out? Absolutely not. Beckham is one of the premier players in the game—and anytime you lose a talent like that, you are not objectively better as a team. But could Beckham’s presence allow Mayfield to look elsewhere for better passes? There may be some truth to that. Even if so, that’s not a Beckham problem. That’s a Mayfield problem. 

Regardless, if Mayfield finds more comfort and confidence for the right throws with Beckham out of the lineup, that can be a silver lining to losing one of your best players and should make the Browns even better when he returns next season.

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