We’re in the thick of the NFL offseason and it’s officially time to start fantasy football prep. I’ll be answering the biggest questions heading into the 2021 season. Click here to read the series of questions answered so far.
Ever the trendsetter, Odell Beckham Jr. was the first of the disgruntled alpha No. 1 wide receivers over the past few years to have his trade demands accepted. It cost the Cleveland Browns safety Jabrill Peppers along with first- and third-round 2019 draft picks to land the stud WR who had played in just 16 of 32 games over the previous two years, but even a minor fan of the game is aware of the great heights OBJ is capable of soaring when he’s right.
Fast forward to the present day, and some folks are bold enough to suggest that the Browns would be better off without the services of Beckham. Sure, his 74-1035-4 2019 campaign, combined with a few tantalizing big plays in 2020, was far from an issue. The problem is that we haven’t consistently seen the same man who looked poised to potentially become the NFL’s next king of the position.
What follows is a breakdown of what exactly has transpired during Beckham’s time with the Browns, as well as what we should expect from him as a fantasy football asset in 2021.
OBJ hasn’t been bad in Cleveland
The 2019 Browns offense featured a steady dose of missed opportunities to Beckham. All in all, he was tied with Mike Evans in terms of total uncatchable targets with 27, second in uncatchable end-zone targets with six and clearly first in uncatchable deep-ball looks with a whopping 16.
Fast forward to 2020, and we saw similar issues between OBJ and Mayfield. For every sporadic big play, there were more instances of missed opportunity. The pair has just never seemed to be on the same page for any level of time over the past two years.
This doesn’t mean that Beckham has been anything resembling “bad.” It’s just tough to ever meet expectations when you set the bar as high as he did during his stint with the Giants. Generally, nothing but good things happened when the Browns managed to get the ball to their No. 1 WR in 2020.
— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) February 3, 2021
The primary driver behind Beckham not flourishing in the same manner with the Browns as he did with the Giants has been volume. He did average a full 0.5 more yards per target with the Giants from 2016-2018, but this shouldn’t have been as big of an issue in fantasy land if more total passing-game opportunities were on the table.
- 2014: 10.8 targets per game
- 2015: 10.5
- 2016: 10.6
- 2017: 10.3
- 2018: 10.3
- 2019: 8.3
- 2020: 6.1
The latter figure only rises to 7.0 if we exclude OBJ’s two-snap performance in Week 7. As the saying in fantasy football goes: chase volume, not talent.
The days of Beckham surpassing 150 targets might very well be over, but that doesn’t mean he can’t still return some high-end production if he manages to improve chemistry with No. 6.
The best version of OBJ with the best version of Baker could be dangerous
Basically, every key offensive contributor is back for the 2021 Browns. The clock struck midnight on their 2020 fairytale season in the divisional round, but Mayfield certainly looked the part of a true franchise QB for most of the year. PFF’s No. 7 QB in passing grade among 44 signal-callers with at least 100 dropbacks (including the playoffs), Mayfield overcame the early-season loss of Beckham with flying colors and regularly put the team in a position to win.
Note that we shouldn’t misinterpret this as the Browns offense being “better” without OBJ. The more likely scenario is that Mayfield was simply more willing to work within the confines of the offense without feeling as if he needed to force-feed an individual player. Overall, Mayfield targeted his first read on just 58% of his dropbacks in 22 games with Beckham over the past two seasons, compared to 63% without him. Only Aaron Rodgers posted a better PFF passing grade than Mayfield when targeting the first read after Week 7.
It’s tough to stop Mayfield when he identifies an open receiver in rhythm, and the truth is that the best version of this Browns offense would consist of this mindset with a coverage-shifting talent like Beckham making things even easier for the passing game’s complementary options.
There isn’t an offense in the league that would be better off without Beckham. The idea that any of Rashard Higgins, KhaDarel Hodge and Donovan Peoples-Jones are better options for the Browns on the outside is absurd. I understand the logic is backward when a QB improves without their No. 1 WR, but we can’t make such large one-off conclusions from such a complex and small-sample game like football.
If we really want to be jerks about the Mayfield-OBJ dilemma, why stop there? Drew Lock improved most of his numbers in 2020, even though Courtland Sutton was limited to just 31 snaps. Russell Wilson was better in most efficiency statistics in 2018 compared to 2019 and 2020 … RIGHT when D.K. Metcalf came on board. Big corp doesn’t want you to know Kirk Cousins just averaged a career-high 8.3 yards per attempt in 2020, which just so happens to be after Stefon Diggs was sent to Buffalo.
Obviously, each of those above tongue-in-cheek notes is more absurd than the Mayfield-OBJ debate. Still, we have more than enough evidence over the years, both in New York and Cleveland, that Beckham remains locked in as one of very few humans on this planet who is absolutely capable of being a starting NFL WR on all 32 teams.
As PFF_Sam eloquently put in his article on 2021 breakout candidates: “Cleveland’s offense has actually been significantly better without Beckham on the field than with him. While many consider the logical conclusion to that being for Beckham to get traded away, I’m instead going to say that a coach as good as Kevin Stefanski can figure out how to mesh one of the game’s most talented players with an offense that cooks on gas in his absence.”
Add it all together and …
Buying great players at a discount is good for fantasy business
OBJ is presently the WR29 over at Underdog Fantasy (best ball) and the WR26 over at Fantasy Football Calculator. Both are reasonable valuations, but remember that even Beckham’s disappointing campaigns with the Browns have beat this valuation. Overall, he finished 2019 as the PPR WR25 and was the WR19 in Weeks 1-6 last season before being injured.
Even the haters have to admit that Beckham is presently priced far closer to his floor than his ceiling. I have him ranked as my WR29 in my fourth tier “Unfortunate volume and/or QB concerns are the only reason they’re this low.” Give me Beckham over the likes of Robby Anderson, Courtland Sutton and the 49ers WRs, while I’ll take the Bengals WRs, DeVonta Smith, D.J. Moore, Kenny Golladay and the Rams' top-two WRs ahead of OBJ. Unfortunately for Beckham, we have to take a leap of faith in both his volume and efficiency improving; there are just higher target ceilings for most receivers in his tier.
It would be tough for even the most optimistic Beckham believers to rationalize locking him in as anything more than a low-end WR2 at this point, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t a player we should be chasing at his reduced valuation. I don’t blame folks for prioritizing other receivers in this range, but everyone should know that the best version of the OBJ-Baker partnership remains capable of producing fantasy WR1 results.
The only other player worth pursuing in fantasy land inside of this likely low-volume passing game is Jarvis Landry because all the man seems to do each and every season is out-perform his ADP:
- 2020: PPR WR36; ADP WR35
- 2019: PPR WR12; ADP WR28
- 2018: PPR WR18; ADP WR17
- 2017: PPR WR5; ADP WR29
- 2016: PPR WR14; ADP WR15
- 2015: PPR WR8; ADP WR17
- 2014: PPR WR31; ADP N/A
Landry’s drop-off in efficiency last season is concerning, although he should be healthier after barely making it to Week 1 following offseason hip surgery. We did still see flashes of his route-running ability being on god mode.
— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) May 26, 2021
Presently priced as the PPR WR38, Landy likely won't return to WR1 heights, but it’s safe to say he is (again) a bit undervalued entering the season.