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How Did Odell Beckham Jr. and the Browns Get to This Point? And Where Do They Go From Here?

With the star receiver being asked to sit out practice on Wednesday, it appears he and the team have reached an impasse. How did things get this bad? And will he soon be moving on?

AP Images/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Say what you want about Odell Beckham Jr.’s dad, but his sense of dramatic timing is undeniable.

On Tuesday, the day of the 2021 NFL trade deadline, Odell Sr. reposted a 11.5-minute video compilation of Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield either not seeing Beckham Jr. running wide-open routes or throwing the receiver uncatchable passes. Whether the younger Odell shares his father’s frustration remains unclear—we can confirm that LeBron James and Dame Lillard certainly do—but after the season he’s had, it wouldn’t be surprising.

Beckham’s first two years in Cleveland were rough, but he’s hit a new low in 2021. He has yet to score a touchdown this season, and he’s on pace to set career lows in catch rate (50 percent), yards per target (6.8), and yards per game (38.7). The 28-year-old is still getting open regularly, but Mayfield just hasn’t been able to get him the ball:

On Wednesday, the Browns coaching staff seemed to escalate the situation, telling Beckham to not come to practice even though the receiver was reportedly planning on attending. The team’s official explanation for Odell’s absence was a shoulder injury—which he has been dealing with since Week 6 and hasn’t previously kept him out of practice—in combination with a “personal matter.” Speaking to the media on Wednesday, head coach Kevin Stefanski would not confirm a report that he told the locker room Beckham was no longer a member of the team, saying, “I would just tell you again: Today he’s excused, and we’ll see where it goes.” Either way, it seems like a split is coming; the only question is whether it will come after the season or within the next few days.

I’m sure both Odell and Baker would prefer that this plays out expeditiously now that their awkward connection on the field has spilled over to the locker room. But while Beckham Sr.’s video may be the reason their personal relationship is on the rocks, there is yet to be a satisfying explanation of why their professional relationship hasn’t led to better results.

Cleveland traded for Beckham before the 2019 season, and many believed he would be the key to opening up this offense and giving Mayfield, who was coming off a stellar rookie campaign, a true receiving threat. But the two have largely failed to connect in the past three years, and Mayfield has famously been more effective when Beckham has been sidelined. Both parties deserve a share of the blame for that. Since 2019, 72 wide receivers have been targeted at least 100 times. Only three have seen a lower rate of catchable passes than Beckham in that span, per Sports Info Solutions. At the same time, the disgruntled receiver has dropped his fair share of catchable passes—13, to be exact, which leads the Browns through the past three seasons.

The solution could very well be that the two just lack the requisite chemistry to form an effective partnership—but you’d think such an issue would be ironed out by year three. A more plausible explanation could be that their games just aren’t compatible based on how Mayfield throws the ball and where Beckham tends to run his routes.

The Browns quarterback has plenty of arm strength, but he’s not what you’d call an “effortless passer.” He has a violent throwing motion that allows him to put plenty of heat on the ball, but he sacrifices some touch in order to do so. One thing that stands out when you watch Mayfield’s film—and you can see it on the compilation Odell Sr. posted—is his inconsistency throwing between the second- and third-levels of the defense: That area requires more touch, and it’s where Beckham runs a lot of his routes:

Pro Football Focus

Beckham primarily runs flies, digs, corners, and seam routes into the intermediate and deep parts of the field. He’s run 60 of those in 2021, per Sports Info Solutions, which leads Cleveland. Mayfield’s performance on such throws has been poor this season, regardless of who’s being targeted. In 40 attempts, he’s averaged -0.10 EPA per play with an accuracy rate of just 40.5 percent. Of the 33 quarterbacks who have attempted at least 10 of those passes, Mayfield ranks 31st in EPA and dead last in accuracy rate.

There are only a handful of quarterbacks who can actually “make all the throws,” as scouts like to say, so it’s not some indictment on Mayfield that he’s having an issue with these. It is, however, an indictment on the Mayfield-Beckham partnership and a coaching staff that has yet to pull the right strings to improve the connection. Last September, Stefanski said the disconnect was something he’d “have to get to the bottom of,” but 14 months later, no answers have been found.

At this point, we’re largely past any of this mattering, as Beckham’s days as a Brown appear to be numbered. Now it’s time to ask how Cleveland can get out of this with as little financial damage as possible. That would have been a lot easier to do before Tuesday’s trade deadline, as dealing Beckham would have allowed Cleveland to avoid a significant cap penalty. According to Spotrac, trading him would have resulted in a dead cap charge of just $1.25 million for Cleveland. Now, Beckham will cost the Browns $15.75 million whether he finishes the season on the roster or not.

Stefanski said Browns general manager Andrew Berry and Beckham’s agent are in discussions on how to proceed from here, but all signs point to a split. The question is whether the team will be able to convince Odell to give up a chunk of the $8 million they owe him for the rest of the season (which Yahoo! Sports Charles Robinson says is unlikely). And if no adjustments are made before his release, Beckham will hit the waiver wire with his current contract, which includes no guaranteed money beyond the 2021 season, per ESPN’s Field Yates.

If he clears waivers, Beckham would be free to sign a new contract with a team of his choosing. And if the reports that the Browns spent Tuesday shopping Beckham and were unable to find a trade partner are accurate, there’ll be a decent chance that happens, as his salary was likely the reason no team was willing to make a deal.

That could create quite the free agent bidding war for Beckham, who may not be the All-Pro talent he was in New York, but he still has plenty left in the tank. The receiver-needy Saints reportedly held trade talks with the Browns before backing out, so they should be in the market. But they won’t be the only contenders interested. Outside of the Buccaneers, Rams, and Bills, every team in the playoff hunt could stand to add another talented receiver to the depth chart, especially the Ravens, Chiefs, Packers, and Chargers. Given how things have played out in Cleveland and New York—where Beckham (along with Lil Wayne, for some reason) made his frustration with an aging Eli Manning very public—one would think quarterback play will be one of the biggest factors in where Beckham chooses to go. If he’s given that freedom, of course.

If Beckham does get to that point, it will be the first time in his NFL career that he’ll be able to handpick his team and the quarterback who will be passing him the football. And if the third time isn’t the charm, it will be a lot easier to figure out who’s to blame.