The Browns Finally Are Super Bowl Contenders After Landing Odell Beckham Jr.

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterMarch 13, 2019

New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham reacts after throwing a touchdown pass to wide receiver Russell Shepard during the second half of an NFL football game against the Chicago Bears, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2018, in East Rutherford, N.J. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
Seth Wenig/Associated Press

Welcome to contention, Cleveland Browns!

The decades-long wait is over. No more flailing helplessly or wandering in the wilderness. No more Moneyball thumb-twiddling. No more tantric tanking or doomsday hoarding. No more 0-16 parades or late-night talk show wisecracks.  

The Browns agreed to acquire star Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. on Tuesday in exchange for the 17th overall pick in this year's draft, a 2019 third-round pick and safety Jabrill Peppers, per multiple reports. The trade will not become official until the start of the new league year Wednesday afternoon.

Trading for Beckham is an all-in move. It means the end of waiting until next year just to start planning for the following year.

The Browns, who went winless in 2017, have shifted into win-now mode.

And not win a few games and congratulate ourselves for making progress mode, either. The Beckham trade shows that the Browns are thinking big.

A wild-card berth? Oh, please. They were on their way to one of those without this trade. Think bigger.

The AFC North title? With the Steelers exiling their superstars, the Ravens shedding most of their payroll and the Bengals operating like some isolationist island government, a division crown looks like small potatoes, too.

The Super Bowl conversation? Yep, that's where the Browns placed themselves with the Beckham deal, with the usual AFC caveat that every Super Bowl conversation starts with "Can anyone mount any challenge whatsoever to the Patriots?"

So welcome to the Super Bowl conversation, Cleveland Browns. You're every bit as likely to reach the AFC Championship Game and have a puncher's chance against the Patriots as the Chiefs were this year andchecks notes to verify this really happenedthe Jaguars were in 2017. That's how far you've come in just over a year.

Also: Welcome to high expectations, to the pressures that come with them and to risk.

Trading for Beckham was risky. He's prone to taking occasional mental/emotional journeys to Planet OBJ, where sideline equipment and stadium-tunnel walls have more to fear from him than opposing cornerbacks. He's also often sidelined with injuries. And he's expensive, thanks to the five-year, $90-million extension he signed with the Giants just seven months ago (though the Giants are still on the hook for $16 million of it).

Odell Beckham Jr. was a mercurial figure for the Giants, but he also caught 35 touchdowns in his first three seasons with the team.
Odell Beckham Jr. was a mercurial figure for the Giants, but he also caught 35 touchdowns in his first three seasons with the team.Chris Szagola/Associated Press/Associated Press

Giving up first- and third-round picks along with Peppers, a talented defender selected 25th overall in 2017, is a hefty premium to pay for a flighty superstar who a team with eight wins in the last two seasons made expendable.

Acquiring Beckham means quarterback Baker Mayfield must become much more than the shoulda-been Rookie of the Year. It means new head coach Freddie Kitchens must become much more than an interim coordinator with some funky play designs and nothing to lose.

The Browns must start winning big. Not someday. Not before everyone's contract is up. Not when the analytical constellations align. This year. Right away.

But risk and expectations are what being a contender is all about.

Being the league's perennial sad sack is easy. You get to sit on pallets of draft picks and gloat about how smart you will look someday. You get free beer for winning one measly game. You get to celebrate the kind of 7-8-1 season that would have other fanbases seething and get coaches and executives in other cities fired.

Past Browns regimes, especially the most recently deposed one, got a little too comfortable in that rut. There's safety in always being at square one of the rebuild, with extra picks in the next draft, cap space to burn and no clear timetable for accomplishing anything (except the whims of a fickle, impatient owner).

Browns general manager John Dorsey could have proceeded slowly and safely this offseason. He could have acquired some drama-free and relatively inexpensive receiver like Tyrell Williams to upgrade Mayfield's arsenal, drafted more puzzle pieces with the picks the Browns just traded away and approached Super Bowl contention more like a tortoise than a hare.

Instead, the Browns leapt into the deep end of the pool, where a 6-5 record in November is a problem, not a reason to start handing out extensions and bonuses; where Mayfield must be more than just "exciting" and "promising" to earn accolades; and where nobody gets credit for merely making the games close and fun anymore.

Browns general manager John Dorsey has accelerated the team's rebuilding timetable with the acquisitions of Beckham, linebacker Olivier Vernon and defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson.
Browns general manager John Dorsey has accelerated the team's rebuilding timetable with the acquisitions of Beckham, linebacker Olivier Vernon and defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson.Tony Dejak/Associated Press/Associated Press

Becoming a contender raises the stakes, and taking bold risks is what sets contenders apart. The Dorsey-led Browns have proved they are willing to take those risks.

Cutting through the predraft chitter-chatter to select Mayfield was risky. Firing both head coach Hue Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley and handing the offense over to a coach with no experience as a coordinator was risky. Retaining Kitchens this offseason instead of seeking a more experienced coach was risky. Doing it all on a quick timetableDorsey only took over the team in December 2017instead of hunkering down and talking about some job-security-friendly "three-year plan" was risky.

In Beckham, Dorsey has acquired one of the league's most talented, thrilling, dangerous and enigmatic players. Dorsey's Browns don't play it safe or procrastinate. They gamble. And it's likely to pay off.   

Mayfield-to-Beckham will be a score-from-anywhere tandem that rivals Patrick Mahomes and Tyreek Hill. The stacked offensive supporting cast includes Beckham's college chum Jarvis Landry, running back Nick Chubb, tight end David Njoku and others. The defensive front four, featuring Myles Garrett and newcomers Olivier Vernon and Sheldon Richardson, may be the NFL's best pass-rushing unit next season. The Browns are poised to score a whole lotta points and pulverize opposing quarterbacks trying to play catch-up.

The Browns are now scary good. But you can't get scary good without doing some things that are scary.

So welcome to a whole new world, Cleveland Browns. You don't get points for trying anymore. An A-plus on draft grades will no longer be the highlight of your season. You are legitimate Super Bowl contenders now, with all the pressures, price tags and problems that come with that.

And you'll likely find the payoff was worth the risk.

        

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter:@MikeTanier.

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