The Cleveland Browns are the NFL’s “it” team this preseason. They have a dynamic young quarterback in Baker Mayfield. They have a star wide receiver in Odell Beckham Jr. They have a new coach, a new plan, and renewed hope ... and this time that hope seems warranted. So how did the Browns go from leaguewide laughingstock to potential model franchise of the future? Welcome to Trust the Browns’ Process Week, when we’ll explore how Believeland reached this point—and what comes next.
After taking over as starter partway through last season, Browns rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield quickly established himself as a bona fide star while transforming Cleveland’s offense from an anemic, stagnant group into a high-flying, exciting unit. In 2019, the already upward-trending Browns could get another shot of adrenaline in the form of game-changing receiver Odell Beckham Jr.
Beckham, who was acquired in a massive trade with the Giants in March, adds explosive speed and a penchant for incredible grabs to a Browns pass-catching unit that lacked a true no. 1 in 2018. The 26-year-old is a playmaker of the highest order and has the potential to not only elevate the Mayfield-led passing attack but upgrade the entire offense. Here are five ways that Beckham can supercharge Cleveland’s offense in 2019.
Tilt the Field
Beckham is a true home run threat from anywhere on the field, and his mere presence—whether he’s out on the wing or in the slot—has the power to dictate defensive schemes. The 5-foot-11, 198-pound pass catcher boasts elite speed, incredible body control, and—you already know this—unbelievably sticky hands. Defensive coordinators often tilt coverage in Beckham’s direction, giving the cornerbacks across from him some help over the top. Simply put, he brings the potential to change the geometry of how teams can line up against Cleveland’s offense.
Of course, Beckham’s true impact as a defense-stretching deep threat has been obscured somewhat over the past few years by the vertically challenged New York offense he’s played in. As NFL.com’s Graham Barfield notes, in the past five years with Beckham, Giants quarterback Eli Manning has mustered just a 33 percent adjusted completion percentage (eliminating drops and throwaways) on passes of 20-plus yards downfield, ranking 40th out of 45 qualifying quarterbacks in that stretch. Last season, New York’s attempts to get Beckham involved deep were, more often than not, thwarted by Manning’s utter lack of arm strength and accuracy.
A full collection of 2018 Odell Beckham "deep" targets (16+ yards the field) pic.twitter.com/Nc3KKcRwym— Dan Pizzuta (@DanPizzuta) October 1, 2018
In fact, according to Pro Football Focus, just 36.1 percent of Manning’s deep throws earned an “accurate” tag while only 19.7 percent were deemed “perfectly” placed. Beckham did reel in all nine of his catchable targets of 20-plus yards downfield last year, gaining 303 yards and two touchdowns, but the Giants left plenty of meat on the bone.
Cleveland shouldn’t have the same problem. Per PFF, Mayfield’s 51.4 percent adjusted completion rate on throws of 20-plus yards ranked third leaguewide, trailing only Marcus Mariota and Drew Brees. An incredible 41.2 percent of Mayfield’s deep shots downfield were marked as “perfect” throws—more than double Manning’s rate last year—and that was with Mayfield throwing deep mainly to rookie Antonio Callaway, former first-round bust Breshad Perriman, Rashard Higgins, and Jarvis Landry, who’s always been best in the short and intermediate zones.
Pair Mayfield’s otherworldly deep accuracy with Beckham’s playmaking talent down the field and the results could be explosive―especially in an offense that will almost surely attack deep at or near league-high rates under head coach Freddie Kitchens and offensive coordinator Todd Monken. As NumberFire’s Ryan McCrystal notes, Cleveland threw deep (defined here by passes of 15-plus yards) on 27.7 percent of its plays from weeks 9 through 17—i.e., after Kitchens had taken the reins—a rate that, translated to a full season, would’ve led the league. Monken’s Air Raid–style offense in Tampa Bay, meanwhile, led the league with a full-season deep-pass rate of 27.0 percent. Expect the Browns to air it out early and often; now that they’ve got an elite deep threat in their pass-catching arsenal, they could smash last year’s deep rate.
No team can live exclusively on deep shots (though it’d be fun to see Cleveland try), and Beckham is far more than just a one-dimensional vertical threat. The former Giant is one of the league’s most explosive and creative runners in the open field, capable of grabbing a short pass and taking it to the house. Beckham ranked ninth among all receivers as a rookie in total yards after the catch (481 yards) and third in both 2015 (591 yards) and 2016 (532) before dropping off a bit to 26th in 2018 (318). All told, Beckham has accumulated 2,006 yards after the catch in his five-year career (eighth over that stretch) and has racked up a total of 82 missed tackles forced (third).
Don’t be surprised if the Browns, who finished middle of the pack in YAC last season, lean on Beckham’s tackle-breaking prowess in the short and intermediate levels. Look for him to be used in the team’s screen-pass repertoire and on quick slants, end arounds, and sweeps. These types of plays act to keep defenses honest and take advantage of defensive tendencies; if corners start cheating by playing off the line of scrimmage too far, Beckham is more than capable of exploiting that.
Unlock Jarvis Landry
When the Browns traded for and then gave Landry a massive five-year, $75.5 million contract extension prior to last season, it raised plenty of eyebrows. Landry had been, to that point, a prolific slot receiver who’d racked up an incredible 400 catches in his first four seasons in the league, but he had never shown even flashes of being a true, mismatch-creating outside receiver. Could he transition to a role as a deep, touchdown-scoring threat after functioning mostly underneath in Miami? The 2018 season indicated the answer to that question was a resounding “no”—Landry caught a career-low 81 passes for 976 yards and four touchdowns, was targeted deep on just 17.5 percent of his routes (58th among 91 qualifying receivers, per PFF), and lined up in the slot about two-thirds of the time.
Adding Beckham to the Browns offense, though, could unlock Landry’s talents over the middle of the field. With Beckham stretching the defense deep, it should create more room underneath and over the middle—just where Landry makes his hay. The 5-foot-11, 196-pound pass catcher is an excellent route runner and highly elusive after the catch; he is (much like Beckham) tough, physical, and creative with the ball in his hands; letting him do what he does best—patrolling the middle of the field to give his quarterback a reliable midrange option—could make the Browns’ pass offense exponentially more difficult to defend.
Change the Math
With Beckham tilting coverages and stretching defenses thin down the field, it will be tough for defenses to line up and play with a single high safety and an eight-man front. Early in Beckham’s career in New York, opponents often lined up in two-high looks, playing Cover 2 or quarters coverage over the top. Those schemes provide more security in the deep area of the field, of course, by dropping an additional defender downfield to cover the pass, but they also sacrifice run defense; there’s just fewer bodies in the box who can take on blocks.
If teams choose to play predominantly two-deep looks with seven men in the box against Cleveland’s deep-passing, aggressive offense, it could pay huge dividends for running back Nick Chubb and the Browns’ overall run game. Chubb faced a loaded box (eight-plus defenders) a whopping 34.4 percent of the time in 2018, fourth-highest league wide. For contrast, Rams running back Todd Gurley saw eight-man fronts on just 8.2 percent of his rushes; with fewer defenders in the way, Chubb and the Browns’ backfield has the potential to really break out. Per the Football Outsiders’ Almanac, Cleveland runners (mainly Chubb) ranked fourth in open-field yards. Give Chubb an opening, and he’s bound to break loose.
Make Clutch Plays
I know it’s a cliché, but I’m going to say it anyway: Big-time players make big-time plays. Beckham has made his mark on the league not just by accumulating a bunch of yards and touchdowns, but by producing iconic plays, under the brightest lights, when his team needs him most. When the Browns absolutely need someone to make a play, Beckham’s going to be the man they look to—and the ultracompetitive pass catcher has never been one to shrink from the limelight.
Beckham’s been relatively quiet the past two seasons—he missed most of 2017 with a leg injury and was buried under a bad Giants offense last year—but as ESPN’s Bill Barnwell points out, during Beckham’s incredible three-year stretch from 2014 to 2016, he led all NFL pass catchers with 10 of what I’ll refer to here as “big-time touchdowns”—scores on drives that, per Barnwell, “improved his team’s win expectancy by 25 percent or more.” The Browns expect Mayfield to make a jump in Year 2, and to do that, he needs a big-play go-to guy. Beckham, poised to recapture that early career form, gives Mayfield just that.