So much for the lack of blockbuster trades in the NFL. Two days after the Raiders swung a show-stopping deal for wide receiver Antonio Brown, the Browns have pulled off a trade that seemed even more unlikely. Cleveland is sending its first-round pick in the 2019 draft (no. 17 overall), one of its two third-round picks, and safety Jabrill Peppers to the Giants in exchange for Odell Beckham Jr.
Brown’s trade to the Raiders (in which the Steelers received 2019 third- and fifth-round picks) had been in the works for weeks after the receiver made it clear via social media and in interviews that he could no longer coexist with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh. The Giants’ decision, on the other hand, comes less than two weeks after GM Dave Gettleman declared at the combine that the team “didn’t sign [Beckham] to trade him.” It may be the most shocking trade involving an NFL superstar in recent memory, and there’s plenty to unpack on both sides of the deal.
Let’s start with the Browns, who have followed up their promising 7-8-1 season in 2018 with several shrewd moves at the start of free agency. Last week, GM John Dorsey dealt guard Kevin Zeitler to the Giants in exchange for pass rusher Olivier Vernon. Earlier Tuesday, Cleveland added defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson on a three-year, $39 million deal (with $21.5 million guaranteed) to further bolster its defensive line. Beckham becomes the centerpiece of the Browns’ offseason moves: The 26-year-old receiver is one of the most dynamic offensive players in the NFL and belongs in the conversation with Brown and Julio Jones as the most talented pass catcher in football. Players with his skill set rarely—if ever—become available in their prime, and for the price the Giants were asking, it’s a deal that the Browns should pounce on every time.
It’s possible that Beckham, similar to Brown, will demand an extension from his new team. But Beckham’s situation is different from Brown’s for a couple of reasons. The most important is that Cleveland’s rapid improvement over the past two years under Dorsey means it’s no longer the wasteland destination that it used to be. Beckham also happens to be close friends with Browns receiver Jarvis Landry, his former LSU teammate. Another difference is that Brown was about two years removed from signing his most recent extension with the Steelers, and the NFL’s rapidly rising salary cap meant that his deal had become outdated compared to the rest of the receiver market. Beckham signed a five-year extension with $65 million in guaranteed money with the Giants last August; the ink on the contract hasn’t been dry long enough for him to reasonably argue that he deserves another payday.
If Beckham remains on his current deal, Cleveland will devote a $17 million cap hit to him this season and $14.3 million in 2020, with just $2.8 million in dead money remaining after next season. As it currently stands, the Browns just acquired a 26-year-old megastar with 44 touchdown receptions in 59 career games and will owe him next to nothing after the 2020 campaign if the situation somehow deteriorates.
Expectations for the Browns were always going to be high this season after their fantastic finish in 2018, fueled by the ascendance of quarterback Baker Mayfield. But the past few days have shifted Cleveland’s outlook from “intriguing young team with plenty of promise” to “potential contender.” After adding Vernon, Richardson, and Beckham, it’s become difficult to find deficiencies on the Browns roster. Losing Peppers leaves a hole at the safety spot next to Damarious Randall, but even with Beckham’s $17 million cap hit, Dorsey has plenty of money to dig into the second wave of the safety market in free agency and come away with a player like Tre Boston or Adrian Phillips. It’s reasonable to wonder about Greg Robinson’s long-term viability at left tackle, whether 2018 second-round pick Austin Corbett can step in for the recently traded Zeitler at guard, or whether Mayfield is destined for a bit of a sophomore swoon. But that’s the place we’ve reached with the Browns: We’ve gone from wondering what the hell they’re doing to nitpicking which aspects of their roster might eliminate them from Super Bowl contention.
As for the Giants, there’s no defense for dealing Beckham just a few months after handing him a gigantic extension. They paid him nearly $21.5 million in cash only to deal him before the second year of his extension began. We’ll likely hear reports about how Beckham was a distraction and a detrimental presence in the locker room, but again, this isn’t like the Brown-Steelers fiasco. Brown publicly called out his quarterback on multiple occasions; even if Beckham quietly harbored resentment about the Giants’ treatment of Eli Manning, the worst of his documented offenses have been a couple of temper tantrums on the sideline and an act of violence against a kicking net. Gettleman appears to have sided with Manning, a 38-year-old quarterback who stopped playing to the level of his contract years ago, over Beckham, one of the most talented offensive players in football who was about to enter his prime on a palatable contract. There’s no rationalizing that decision on any level.
Gettleman opted against drafting a quarterback in last year’s draft in favor of selecting running back Saquon Barkley with the second overall pick. Providing Manning with a dynamic pair of skill-position players in Beckham and Barkley seemed to indicate that the Giants were attempting to remain competitive rather than institute a full-scale rebuild. Gettleman appeared to double down on that approach by not moving on from Manning before free agency began, thereby keeping Manning’s $23.2 million cap hit on the books as he looked to acquire available talent. After trading his best player (less than a week after dealing Vernon to the Browns), Gettleman can no longer reasonably claim that the Giants are trying to compete in 2019. They have no discernible plan or direction and there’s been no trace of cohesion among any of their decisions over the past 12 months. Last week, the Giants didn’t use the franchise tag on safety Landon Collins, at the meager cost of $11.2 million, because they reportedly worried about his limitations as an in-the-box safety. A significant part of the Giants’ return in the trade for Beckham is Peppers—an in-the-box safety. By no means is that the worst team-building sin Gettleman has committed over the past year, but it does point to just how directionless the franchise is. Over the past week, its decisions have devolved from “inadvisable” to “catastrophic.” There’s a good chance that Gettleman will elect to take a quarterback in the top 10 of this year’s draft to start a full-scale rebuild, but that quarterback will eventually step into an offense without one of the most devastating receivers that the league has seen in some time.
As the Giants crater, the Browns continue to head in the opposite direction as fast as possible. As recently as two years ago, no one would have been surprised if Cleveland were to set its roster back years with a baffling set of decisions. Now the Browns are the organization stockpiling talent in pursuit of division championships and possibly even grander aspirations. Just like no one saw this Beckham trade coming, no one could have foreseen how quickly these two franchises have sped in opposite directions.