CLEVELAND, Ohio — When Odell Beckham Jr. suffered a season-ending torn ACL during Sunday’s 37-34 victory over the Bengals, some wondered if he had taken his last snaps in a Browns uniform.
Beckham and Baker Mayfield haven’t connected the way everyone thought they would when former Browns GM John Dorsey traded for Beckham in March of 2019, giving up a 2019 first-rounder, a third rounder, and safety Jabrill Peppers.
A statistical case can be made that Mayfield performs better without Beckham — and vice versa.
According to Next Gen Stats, Mayfield’s passer rating with Beckham on the field is 79.6. Without him, it’s 116.6. His TD-INT ratio is 29-27 with Beckham, 8-1 without him, including his five TD passes Sunday in Cincinnati.
Conversely, Eli Manning never had a passer rating under 95.6 when targeting Beckham in five seasons in New York. In their first three seasons together, it averaged 114.3.
Most of Beckham’s least productive games have come as a Brown, with three or fewer receptions in seven of his 22 starts (32%) compared to three or fewer in only three of his 56 starts (5%) in New York.
So the disconnect between the three-time Pro Bowl receiver and the Browns’ 2018 No. 1 pick is clearly a two-way street, and the question becomes, what to do about it?
The drumbeat is that Mayfield suddenly morphed back into the dangerous 2018 rookie version of himself with Beckham in the locker room nursing the injured knee. But it must also be remembered that Mayfield beat the Bengals and their 32nd-ranked defense twice during that 5-3 stretch at the end of that season, with ratings of 143.9 and 121.9, and seven touchdown passes without an interception.
Nevertheless, it may be true that Mayfield plays unencumbered with Beckham off the field, without the pressure to get the ball to his star wideout, who needs early touches to get into the flow of the game. He certainly looked a lot better in that game throwing to old standbys such as Rashard Higgins and David Njoku, and newcomers such as rookies Harrison Bryant and Donovan Peoples-Jones.
According to ESPN Stats and Info, over the last two seasons, Mayfield and Beckham have the worst completion percentage (55.6%) of any duo in the NFL with at least 100 attempts. Mayfield’s off-target rate is also 10.7% with other receivers over that span, and 28.2% with Beckham. Clearly it hasn’t worked to this point, and it remains to be seen if it ever will.
But it’s much more complicated than dispensing with Beckham and watching Mayfield develop into the elite quarterback the Browns believe they drafted in 2018. For starters, $12.791 million of Beckham’s $14.5 million 2021 base salary was guaranteed for injury at signing, and the Browns are on the hook for that sum next season. It means they’d likely have to trade him if they don’t see him in their plans.
Would they be able to deal him in the offseason coming off surgery to repair a torn ACL, which should take place soon? These days, torn ACLs aren’t the death knell they once were, and teams would likely be willing to acquire him under the terms of his current contract, which includes base salaries of $13.75 million in 2022 and 2023, and no guarantees after next season. The new team would probably re-do the deal and give him more guaranteed money after 2021.
The recovery for an ACL is usually around nine to 12 months, meaning Beckham could be on the field at the start of next season. Nine months would have him back practicing during training camp in August.
But that’s only one of many scenarios for how it could unfold.
The final nine games of the season — and very likely the playoffs — will help determine who returns and who doesn’t for 2021.
Mayfield, with his back against the wall, came out in Cincinnati and served notice that he still has every intention of being the Browns’ quarterback of the future. With that steely look in his eyes, Mayfield ripped off a club-record 21 straight completions and five touchdown passes — including the game-winner with 11 seconds left — to take a huge step in proving to the Browns that he’s their guy. The performance was remarkable, even though it came against the Bengals’ 25th-ranked defense, one that was without its No. 1 cornerback. He needed to be almost perfect to pull out that victory, and he was.
The Browns needed to see that he could be the reason they won a game. They needed to see that he could orchestrate a come-from-behind victory in the fourth quarter. They needed to see the confidence and accuracy he played with in 2018, when he set the rookie record with 27 touchdown passes.
But the trial period is still underway, and Mayfield must continue to check off boxes as the season goes along. While the victory was stunning, it ran his record to 5-1 against the Bengals, compared to 12-18 for everyone else. While it could be his launching point, he must still prove he can beat good defenses and compete in the demanding AFC North.
The Browns play a lot of bad teams down the stretch, including five with two victories or fewer — the Texans (1-6), the Eagles (2-4), the Jaguars (1-6), the Giants (1-6), and the Jets (0-7) — and they must unflinchingly factor that into their decision. On Sunday, they face the 3-3 Raiders, but they’re 28th against the pass and don’t pressure the QB, notching only seven sacks this season.
The stakes for Mayfield are high, because the Browns must decide in the offseason if he deserves a blockbuster extension worth upwards of $35 million a year, or whether they want to pick up his full guaranteed fifth-year option for 2022 at about $25 million a year.
If Mayfield plays well the rest of the way, especially against Baltimore and Pittsburgh, he’ll be back in 2021 and the Browns must then decide what to do with Beckham. They can keep him and hope the two finally connect, or trade him and move on. If Mayfield clearly performs better without him the rest of the season, including against Pittsburgh and Baltimore, the answer will be clear.
If Mayfield falters down the stretch, especially against the three remaining good teams in Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Tennessee, the Browns must decide if they want to commit more than $25 million to him for 2022 by the option deadline May.
If he doesn’t warrant that — and indications are that he will — they’ll be forced to look for a quarterback, and in that case, perhaps Beckham stays. But the Browns must also determine if they want to pay a receiver who will be 29 in November of 2021 the more than $15.75 million he’ll be owed next season, including a $1 million roster bonus and a $250,000 workout bonus.
Beckham might also want a say in the matter, depending on the commitment to Mayfield.
At this point, they could both be back, they could both be gone, or one or the other could remain.
It will all be part of the drama as the rest of 2020 unfolds.
New Browns face masks for sale: Here’s where you can buy Cleveland Browns-themed face coverings for coronavirus protection for adults and youth, including a single mask ($14.99) and a 3-pack ($24.99). All NFL proceeds donated to CDC Foundation.
More Browns coverage