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The Cleveland Browns may be down one of the game’s premier playmakers, but Odell Beckham Jr.‘s injury shouldn’t force the team’s hand prior to Tuesday’s trade deadline.
Beckham is a superstar and one of the NFL‘s most recognizable players. When the wide receiver is at his best, no one in the league is better. But a torn ACL prematurely ended his season, leaving the Browns without a dynamic threat in the passing game.
Even so, immediately trading for another veteran wide receiver would be misguided.
The Browns are 5-2 and have a possible playoff run on the horizon. No one the team could acquire would bring the same attributes as Beckham to the field. Furthermore, Baker Mayfield and Co. already have the pieces in place to compete without shoehorning a new addition into the mix.
Before looking at where the Browns stand at the wide receiver position, a quick glance at those who could be on the trading block should be taken into account. The New York Giants’ Golden Tate, Philadelphia Eagles’ Alshon Jeffery and basically the entire Houston Texans receiver corps—Will Fuller V, Brandin Cooks, Randall Cobb and Kenny Stills—are widely believed to be available.
Investing in the position when the Browns’ 2021 salary cap has a combined $30.6 million hold on the contracts of Beckham and Jarvis Landry is excessive considering the team would also relinquish a draft asset and/or player to make a trade.
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Instead, the Browns should hold steady and continue to build on what the offense accomplished Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals. No, the Bengals aren’t a good defensive team, and the Browns struggled mightily against the Pittsburgh Steelers’ outstanding defense in Week 6. But sometimes a confidence-builder can change the trajectory of a season.
“I think this game could have given this offense confidence to realize we can believe and trust in everybody,” Mayfield told reporters. “We always have a chance if we believe in that. It was the most important game to date because it was the next one.”
Mayfield provided the best single-game performance of his career with Beckham off the field after the Browns’ first offensive series. The third-year quarterback threw five touchdown passes, including a game-winning 24-yard scoring passes to rookie Donovan Peoples-Jones with 11 seconds remaining. In doing so, Mayfield won AFC Offensive Player of the Week.
But the fact that Peoples-Jones came down with the catch may be the most interesting aspect of the play. The sixth-round rookie hadn’t caught a single pass prior to Sunday’s effort and was only in the game due to Beckham’s injury.
The Browns had only three healthy or semi-healthy wide receiver options once Beckham left the contest. Landry continues to battle through injury. Meanwhile, Peoples-Jones and Rashard Higgins combined for 166 receiving yards.
Cleveland isn’t forced to make a move at wide receiver because the unit already features two young and promising options.
Peoples-Jones entered the collegiate ranks as a 5-star recruit but never flourished in the Michigan Wolverines’ run-first scheme. So he tumbled down draft boards before the Browns selected him with this year’s 187th overall draft pick. The natural gifts that made Peoples-Jones an elite recruit didn’t disappear, though. His SPARQ (speed, power, agility, reaction and quickness) rating is nearly off the charts.
The Browns shouldn’t place too much on Peoples-Jones’ plate as his workload increases, but more contributions should be expected.
Higgins is the bigger beneficiary of extra snaps.
Ever since Mayfield entered the league as the No. 1 overall pick in the ’18 draft, he and Higgins have had a rapport. The Browns had Tyrod Taylor on the team at the time. As such, Mayfield worked almost exclusively with the second- and third-team receivers during his first NFL training camp. He and Higgins clicked. They still do.
The fifth-year veteran posted a season best for Browns receivers Sunday with 110 yards. He’ll move into a far more prominent role as a result.
“I’m in the starting lineup as of now,” Higgins told reporters.
Head coach Kevin Stefanski added: “Since the moment he’s been with us, whether on Zoom calls back in the spring or out here on the practice field when we finally got together at training camp, he does his job. … Whatever the team needs, he’s going to do it.”
Considering the team’s current circumstances, the comfort level Mayfield has working with his young receivers is both odd and calming. The quarterback can simply read his progression and deliver to whoever is open instead of forcing passes to Beckham.
Sometimes, a pairing looks great on paper but never clicks. Beckham’s absence is significant from a game-planning perspective for both the offense and opponents. But Mayfield and his star receiver struggled in 22 games together.
In fact, the developing signal-caller has been significantly worse targeting Beckham than his other options, as ESPN’s Jake Trotter noted:
Some will also make the mistake of thinking another wide receiver can help fill the void when Cleveland has plenty of other weapons at its disposal.
For example, rookie tight end Harrison Bryant filled in nicely for Austin Hooper when the two-time Pro Bowl selection needed an emergency appendectomy last week. The reigning John Mackey Award winner snagged four passes, including a pair of touchdown grabs, for 56 yards. Fellow tight end David Njoku caught a touchdown pass as well.
If the passing game isn’t clicking, the Browns can always rely on their third-ranked ground attack.
Nick Chubb went down with a sprained MCL nearly a month ago. No problem. Kareem Hunt took over with positive results. According to Pro Football Focus, the 2017 league-leading rusher has more runs of 10 or more yards than any other back.
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“I was really impressed with his ability to break tackles,” offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt told reporters. “He ran hard [against the Bengals]. Got us a lot of hard, extra, dirty yards, and hopefully he is feeling better each week moving forward.”
Chubb isn’t going to miss much more time, either. He could very well return after the Browns’ Week 9 bye.
Beckham is great, but the Browns are still loaded on offense. If Cleveland makes a move at the deadline, it should add to its defense.
Linebacker, safety and a bookend to Myles Garrett are needed.
“The Browns are another team that could get creative in moving players in and out, and along those lines veteran pass-rusher Olivier Vernon’s name is one that’s circulating as available for teams looking for help in that area,” Sports Illustrated‘s Albert Breer reported. “I don’t think it’s too much to think the Browns could trade Vernon and add a pass-rusher elsewhere to replace him.”
While it’s unfair to say the Browns are a better team without Beckham, they’re still good enough to snap the league’s longest playoff drought with the remaining pieces in place.