A year ago, there wasn't a more talked-about transaction in the offseason than the trade that sent superstar wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. from the New York Giants to the Cleveland Browns. That deal is what kicked the hype surrounding the Browns into overdrive.
We know what happened next. That hype, in the words of William Shakespeare, was full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. The Browns pitched and lurched their way to a 6-10 season that cost head coach Freddie Kitchens his job, and Beckham struggled through an injury-plagued and (by his standards, at least) pedestrian campaign.
However, there's still time for steak to go with all that sizzle. The stage is set in 2020 for Beckham to show that all the hullabaloo surrounding his arrival on the shores of Lake Erie wasn't misplaced so much as delayed.
Beckham is going to explode in Cleveland. It's just going to be a year later than we thought.
In fairness to the 27-year-old, it's not like his 2019 season was a complete disaster. He reeled in 74 passes and topped the 1,000-yard mark for the fifth time in six seasons. But he never hit his stride with his new team.
Battling nagging injuries most of the season, including a sports hernia, Beckham would make a big catch and then vanish for big stretches of games. His four touchdown catches were far and away a career low for a 16-game season. Beckham made more headlines on the field for his wardrobe choices than his statistical production.
There were rumors by season's end that Beckham already wanted out of Cleveland. And rumors in the offseason that the Browns might oblige him. As relationships go, this one got off to a slightly rockier start.
"Right now what I'm trying to do is hit the reset button. Being able to just get everything fixed. Shoulder, arms, back, everything aligned, functional, moving properly, so I can begin training to be ready for the season. I would honestly say this is probably going to be one of my best seasons. Bigger, stronger, faster -- this is my time."
Beckham has never been a player short on confidence, but there are quite a few reasons to believe that this is more than just braggadocio.
The first is the most obvious. Health. As Beckham himself admitted, he wasn't close to 100 percent last year:
"So last year I was training in June and July, and I was kind of just feeling stuff around the groin area, abs and stuff like that, My third week of training camp, I tear a little piece of my ab. So, before the season, I kind of had the hernia thing going on. Sports hernia is what they call it. End up at the end of the season, torn abductor, torn rectus abdominis on the right.
"So pretty much, I was just f--ked up the whole year. I really didn't try and say anything about it. Probably one of the worst surgeries I've ever had. Recovery's going well. Guess I'm really just trying to put my body back together. I've been playing for 23 years, so for me, I'm trying to put it all back together in seven months."
It didn't take a medical degree to see that Beckham wasn't right physically in 2019. Beckham at 75 percent is better than 85 percent of the receivers in the NFL, but his extra gear that separates great from really good just wasn't there consistently.
Then there was the sad state of the Cleveland offense under Kitchens, who served as offensive coordinator for eight games in 2018 after the team fired Todd Haley. As it turned out, any success offensively that season was as much in spite of Kitchens as because of him. The innovative and aggressive play-calling was replaced by a mishmash of predictable, puzzling and putrid.
That led to one of two scenarios for Beckham—either the Browns forced the ball into coverage in his direction, or he was on the side of a milk carton. For the first time in his career (excluding a four-game 2017 campaign), Beckham averaged fewer than 10 targets per game.
Per 92.3 The Fan in Cleveland, new Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski pledged the team plans to put Beckham in better position to succeed in 2020.
"It's very obvious to everybody, the skill set of Odell," Stefanski said on Bull and Fox last week. "He's a player that when he touches the rock, he can go the distance, and there's not many like that in the NFL. [I'm] really excited to put him in a scheme where I hope we're getting the most out of him, and putting him in position to make big plays."
A head coach making a concerted effort to maximize the potential of his best offensive weapon. What a wild concept.
Of course, a receiver is only as good as the quarterback throwing him the ball, and Baker Mayfield backslid in his second season. As Browns general manager Andrew Berry stated on ESPN Radio's Golic and Wingo show (h/t Mary Kay Cabot of cleveland.com), he expects Stefanski's offense to propel Mayfield (and by extension Beckham) to bigger and better things:
"I can assure you there's nobody who's more focused and determined to put last year behind him and take a step forward than [Mayfield]. We're excited about the environment that we've created around that position and around that room in general, and we really do expect him to have a fantastic year. I know Kevin [Stefanski] and the staff have done a really nice job with the virtual offseason so far, implementing the new system, and we think that he'll be able to thrive in it this season."
Stefanski might not be Kyle Shanahan of Sean McVay, but he's a more proven commodity than Kitchens. His offense in Minnesota had an identity—a trait that was sorely absent in Cleveland last year, when a few scripted plays were followed by plays that appeared to be selected from Madden at random.
Some stability in play-calling and an offensive identity can only help Mayfield. And it stands to reason that will help his No. 1 receiver.
It's also not like Beckham won't have help. The Browns have arguably the best one-two punch at running back in Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. Jarvis Landry caught 83 passes for 1,174 yards last year and remains one of the league's most reliable pass-catchers over the middle. Free-agent addition Austin Hooper was fifth among tight ends in catches (75) and sixth in receiving yards (787) in 2019.
And perhaps most importantly, the addition of veteran tackle Jack Conklin in free agency and Jedrick Wills Jr. in the first round of the 2020 draft should be a massive boost to an offensive line that ranked just 18th in pass protection last year, per Football Outsiders.
The dominoes couldn't be lined up better for Beckham. All he needs to do is knock the first one over.
We know he can. We've seen what he can do when healthy and on top of his game. With just average quarterback play and not much of a supporting cast around him in New York, he was one of the hardest players to defend in the NFL.
There's just not much you can do about this.
In 2020, Beckham will have a coach who has already committed to putting him in a position to do what he does best. He'll have an impressive array of skill-position talent around him to prevent defenses from just bracketing him in coverage on every play. And a young quarterback who has shown he can play at a high level and who is every bit as motivated as Beckham to put last year's disappointment behind him.
Assuming that the injury issues of 2019 are in the past, there's no reason to think Beckham won't hit the ground running in his second year with the Browns.
Good luck keeping up with him.