The Cleveland Browns lost wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. for the season with a torn ACL. It is a devastating blow to a team already without star running back Nick Chubb. Cleveland is treading water in the AFC North following a 37-34 victory over the Bengals Sunday. How much will Beckham's absence impact the Browns offense? Who will replace his production? Is Cleveland a better football team without Beckham? No. Are they a more talented team without Beckham? Certainly not. However, there is an argument that Baker Mayfield might be more efficient and comfortable without the wide receiver.
Former head coach Freddie Kitchens forced the ball to his top dollar receiver last season despite the team's obvious strength running the football and setting up the pass through play action. Flashback to the Browns' Week 3 win over Washington. The team rushed for more yards (158) than they passed (156) and Mayfield was having to tell his receivers to stay patient while celebrating a touchdown. Mayfield no longer has to manage touches. He opened Sunday's game against Cincinnati with five incompletions, including an interception thrown in the direction of Beckham.
The slow start could be the former No. 1 overall selection just needing time to settle into the flow of the game, but he found his rhythm following that initial struggle. Over the final three quarters, Mayfield completed 22 of 23 passes for 297 yards and five touchdowns.
The lone incompletion was a spike to stop the clock late in the fourth quarter. NextGen Stats noted that there was a 1-in-19,062 chance that Mayfield would complete those 22 passes in near succession. The game-winning touchdown had just a 21.7% chance of being completed.
The most impressive aspect of Mayfield's success is the unlikely supporting cast. Jarvis Landry finished with five receptions for 48 yards despite playing with broken ribs. Tight end Harrison Bryant, a rookie selected in the fourth round in 2020, wide receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones, a rookie selected in the sixth-round in 2020, and wide receiver Rashard Higgins, a former fifth-round pick not re-signed until April 28, combined for 13 catches for 222 yards and three touchdowns, including the improbable game-winner.
It was a remarkable feat but it came against a Cincinnati secondary that surrendered a personal record-breaking second quarter to Colts quarterback Philip Rivers one week earlier. The narrative on Rivers to that point had been his washed play and onset limitations to Indianapolis' season.
In an ideal world, Cleveland could rely on those aforementioned players without giving up draft capital. It would be a bold move for a team that is legitimately in the mid-season playoff conversation for the first time since 2007. However, Beckham's strength was spreading the field and that is difficult to reproduce. Coach Kevin Stefanski will have to manufacture some of that into his play-calling. The team could organically institute more three tight end sets with David Njoku and Bryant when Austin Hooper returns from an emergency appendectomy.
They could also look to Houston for wide receivers Kenny Stills or Will Fuller but it is more likely that they start activating Taywan Taylor on Sundays and use him on vertical routes. Beckham and Landry are scheduled to account for $30.55 million against the salary cap in 2021 so they can ill-afford to add another costly pass catcher.
For the fantasy owners looking for a quick add that could lead to a championship, you will not find it in Cleveland. The safe bet is that Beckham's production is fulfilled by a committee of names rather than one player taking it all upon himself. Besides, the Browns' identity is ground in the run game and Chubb is scheduled to return shortly after the Week 9 bye.
The book on Mayfield has been his inability to recognize zone coverage. He was not having to move from his first option much during the comeback win over their AFC North counterpart so that is something to monitor. Has he truly progressed or was his transcendent play a byproduct of the competition? Last week's rough up by Pittsburgh may have brought on PTSD for Mayfield, who was sacked 41 times the prior year. In back-to-back games, he has thrown interceptions on the first throw of the game. His confidence has see-sawed back and forth but should be high coming off of Sunday's performance.
There is a lot of uncertainty in Cleveland but it is not simply how Beckham will be replaced. There is equal importance to the growth of Mayfield. If he builds on Sunday's performance, then the team will be able to overcome some of the challenges brought on by the star wide receiver's absence.
The upcoming home game against Las Vegas is a trial run. The Raiders are surrendering the fifth-most passing yards per game. Stefanski can tweak the offense, diagnose the results and make any necessary changes during the Week 9 bye.