Front Office Commentary

Tannenbaum: Why the Browns Are Better Without OBJ

Odell Beckham Jr. was traded to the Browns in March of 2019 along with Olivier Vernon in exchange for Jabrill Peppers, Kevin Zeitler, and the Browns’ first- and third-round picks in the 2019 NFL Draft. Since then, it’s no secret that the Browns have been better without Beckham. They went 13-15 with him and 8-4 without him; QB Baker Mayfield’s TD-INT ratio was 42-29 with OBJ and 14-3 without him. 

Many have blamed these disparate results on poor chemistry between the QB and WR, but let’s take a deeper look. 

Since Kevin Stefanski was hired as the Browns Head Coach in 2020, Odell Beckham Jr. was the team’s most targeted WR in games that he played. Excluding games in which he was injured, Odell had 76 targets while playing for Cleveland. The Browns next most targeted receivers in such games were Austin Hooper and Jarvis Landry with 49 each.

The issue is that Beckham’s production deteriorated after being traded from New York to Cleveland, and he did not merit his target share. He accumulated over 2 yards per route run (YPRR) every season with the Giants, averaging 2.72 YPPR in his historic rookie season.

In Cleveland, however, he has averaged 1.57 yards per route run throughout his three seasons. With the Giants, Beckham had four seasons with at least 1,000 yards and three with at least 1,350. He has only eclipsed the 1,000 yard mark in his first year with the Browns.      

The simplest explanation is therefore that the Browns struggled with Beckham because he didn’t play well, yet was their most targeted receiver when he played. However, there were also trickle down effects with Cleveland’s other weapons. Because Beckham lined up primarily outside (84.3% of his snaps), Rashard Higgins was forced to take more snaps from the slot, where he was less effective.

Higgins played 49.2% of his snaps from the slot in games with Beckham in comparison to 19.0% when Beckham was out. He was far more productive lining up outside. Without Beckham, Higgins averaged 2.11 yards per route run. When Beckham played? Just 1.01.

In addition to Higgins, Donovan Peoples-Jones’ targets have nearly doubled without Odell, and he has taken advantage of such opportunities. His 60-yard TD pass from Baker Mayfield on Sunday was a key play that propelled the Browns to victory. Look for the former 5-star recruit and No. 1 WR in his HS class to continue to produce moving forward. 

Jarvis Landry has also been more productive and seen a larger share of targets when his college teammate has been sidelined. Under Stefanski, Landry has 92 targets, the most of any Browns player while Beckham has not played. Likewise, despite supposed chemistry due to their LSU days, Landry has a PFF Receiving Grade of 69.9 with Odell versus an 83.2 grade (the highest on the team) without him. 

Speaking of chemistry, it is often discussed whenever Beckham’s name is mentioned, and the easy answer for why the Browns have played better without him is that he did not have a strong connection with Mayfield.

But don’t confuse causation and correlation here. Chemistry doesn’t necessarily cause winning. While it’s true that winning teams and chemistry often go together, the reverse could also be true — that winning causes chemistry.

For the Browns, there is not one simple explanation for why it didn’t work out with Odell. But every GM has a metaphorical sign in their office that “production = tolerance.” If Beckham would have played better, it is far more likely that he would still be a Cleveland Brown. 

Grant Reiter contributed to this story

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