In February, when NFL front offices were heading to the scouting combine and shaping up lists of potential offseason cuts by opposing teams, Cleveland Browns defensive end Olivier Vernon was expected to be a serviceable player who would be readily available.
Not only was Vernon set to make $15.25 million in 2020, the wide belief was that new general manager Andrew Berry would be eager to clear out the additions of former GM John Dorsey who hadn’t lived up to their paychecks and might not be culture fits under the new regime.
Teams waited for Berry to make a move with Vernon. Through February. Then March. Finally, hoping to get some kind of answer before April’s draft, a few front offices put out feelers in hopes of getting one question answered: What exactly was Berry waiting for? They wanted a mid-level free agent option at defensive end, and surely Berry wasn’t going to pay Vernon’s full salary. So why wasn’t he cutting him loose?
Eventually, the front offices got their answer. Berry was being patient — simply because he had the option to do so. When the time came in July, he offered Vernon a reduced one-year salary that he knew would exceed anything that would be available on the open market.
This brief piece of history about Berry is important right now. It speaks directly to what is going to happen with injured wideout Odell Beckham Jr. over the next six-to-nine months. That period will string out a similar quandary: What to do with a serviceable player who appears to be at a critical four-way stop of talent, age, contract and football production.
Make no mistake, Beckham is there.
While he turns 28 next month, his most relevant stat entering the next offseason will also be his most dubious. Injuries have limited him to only 39 of a possible 64 regular-season games over the past four seasons. That time frame is also marked by Beckham being one of the highest-paid wideouts in the league.
It also features ample evidence that Beckham has never regained the traction that made him arguably the NFL’s most dangerous receiver from 2014-16.
This is why Beckham’s career feels like it’s at a crossroads.
He’s a $15.75 million wideout in 2021 whose recent career has been defined by his inability to justify the cost and sideshow that come with it. Basically, he’s a talented player on the depth chart who no longer translates that promise onto the field.
You can point at his health or his quarterback or his scheme or his coaching. The bottom line is if it’s not working in Cleveland ... it’s simply not working. You can expect Berry to carefully pick through that entire cost-benefit analysis over many months ahead.
Can the Browns cut Odell Beckham Jr.?
While the Vernon parallel isn’t perfect, there are going to be similar hallmarks.
Vernon’s salary wasn’t guaranteed, so the Browns had the option of cutting him whenever that salary slot might have been needed. It very well might have been voided if Jadeveon Clowney had ever come around to signing on to play opposite Myles Garrett.
That never happened, so Berry patiently waited to find a more advantageous salary plateau for Vernon that would pay him $11 million for one year and allow him to hit free agency in 2021.
The $4.5 million in salary-cap savings? Berry knew it could be rolled over into the next offseason, helping the team navigate the coming cap rollback and further positioning Cleveland to be attractive buyers in the 2021 free-agent market.
Meanwhile, Cleveland kept a player in the fold who it hoped could bounce back from a knee injury with a productive 2020 season.
Beckham’s torn ACL makes his situation more complicated than Vernon. Because of injury guarantees, Cleveland will now be on the hook for at least $12.97 million into next season — which dramatically alters some of the options on the table.
It no longer makes sense for the Browns to cut Beckham Jr. outright. The injury essentially locked Cleveland into Beckham’s full salary in 2021, and it would be foolish to cut him while taking that hit.
How does Baker Mayfield’s performance factor in?
Much like Vernon, this will be about patience. And that patience is going to be a series of steps to figure out if Beckham Jr. remains the right fit.
The first domino in the assessment is going to be quarterback Baker Mayfield, who has made it a point to force-feed Beckham the football — often to the team’s detriment.
It was notable that Mayfield went on a run after Beckham went down against the Cincinnati Bengals. Not only did he appear to be playing more loose as the game went on, he also seemed to be going through his route progressions. That was either a fortunate coincidence or a concerning sign that Mayfield might actually be more comfortable without Beckham on the field.
That’s speculation, of course. Mayfield dispelled the notion that the team functions better without Beckham.
Time is also going to flesh this one out because now the Browns will get a sustained snapshot of what new head coach Kevin Stefanski’s offense looks like without a receiver who demands so much attention from his quarterback. Whether Mayfield is a better quarterback without Beckham is a matter of argument, one that is about to get some fresh data — and the Browns will absolutely take note of it.
Will OBJ be ready for the 2021 season?
Once the Browns have that information, the next domino is going to fall on Beckham’s rehabilitation. Expecting him to be ready for the spring passing program will be a stretch at best. He may not even be around for the typical full-squad minicamps in June.
All of this means that if the Browns feel like the best move is to part company, that opportunity may not present itself until training camp in July. Even if Beckham is healthy by then, it still might be a tough sell for the Browns on the trade market, given that most teams will likely be reticent to pay Beckham’s full 2021 salary coming off a torn ACL.
They’ll be especially wary if the NFL’s salary cap rolls back next offseason from a COVID-induced revenue shortfall. Not only is the rollback expected to put a chill into free agency, it might make a move toward Beckham’s $15.75 million salary almost completely unpalatable.
That leaves Berry with little wiggle room other than a patient track for Beckham’s future. He’ll have to see how Mayfield performs, then assess the draft and free-agent class of wideouts, while measuring where Beckham is at mentally and whether there is still a future in Cleveland that properly marries the team’s expectations with Beckham’s ability to live up to them.
Whatever the answers are, there will be no ignoring this storyline around the team. Without a doubt, Beckham’s status and future will be a swirl of questions.
Those answers will be on Berry’s patient timeline. If last offseason was any indication, the rest of the league and potential Beckham vultures can take a seat. Everyone is going to be waiting awhile on this one.
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