New York Giants general manager Dave Gettleman took to the podium on Feb. 27 to address the media during the NFL combine. Someone asked about the rumors swirling around star wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., whom the Giants signed to a five-year, $80 million extension in August 2018. “We didn’t sign Odell to trade him,” Gettleman said. “That’s all I need to say about that.”
Thirteen days later, the Giants traded Beckham to the Cleveland Browns for first- and third-round picks and safety Jabrill Peppers. To my knowledge, nothing changed in those 13 days. Beckham appears to have all of his extremities intact. The NFL did not ban the forward pass. The Giants traded Olivier Vernon for Kevin Zeitler and let Landon Collins leave in free agency, but they didn’t suddenly build a time machine and bring 1987 Jerry Rice through a portal and into Giants colors.
Something dramatic and inexplicable needs to have happened in those 13 days to make this trade make sense because it otherwise reads as if the Giants were hacked. Months after paying him a $20 million signing bonus, they traded one of the league’s best young players at any position to the Browns for the sort of offer the computer would reject in a video game.
This has the potential to be a franchise-resetting trade, the sort of deal that gets everyone fired and leaves fans muttering for decades about what could have been. The Giants have never had a player like OBJ before. Now, they don’t have him — or much of anything — at all.
How to start a rebuild
It’s fair to say that Gettleman didn’t inherit much when he took over as Giants GM in December 2017. Jerry Reese left the team after a string of horrific drafts, and while the Giants were able to paper over those holes by spending big in free agency to make the 2016 playoffs, regression then took hold, and they fell to 3-13.
Even given the fact that Reese left Gettleman with precious little in the cupboard, what Gettleman has done since is scarcely believable:
- His 2018 free-agent haul was a disaster. Nate Solder, whom Gettleman made the highest-paid tackle in football, had the worst year of his career. Patrick Omameh, signed to a three-year, $15 million deal to play guard, was cut halfway into the season. Running back Jonathan Stewart, signed to a one-year, $3.5 million deal, touched the ball six times in three games before going on injured reserve.
- The Giants used the second overall pick on running back Saquon Barkley, ignoring the simple concept of positional scarcity and passing on impactful players at more important positions such as Sam Darnold, Denzel Ward and Bradley Chubb. Barkley looked brilliant with the ball in his hands and made highlight-reel runs, but he was inefficient and racked up yards in garbage time. The Giants were 18th in rushing DVOA with their new star back but were left with holes or subpar players at most of the critical positions in their lineup.
- In October, Gettleman traded former first-round pick Eli Apple to the Saints for fourth- and seventh-round picks. Apple almost immediately stepped into the starting lineup for New Orleans and helped turn around a struggling defense, which improved dramatically in the second half of the season. New York finished the season with veteran minimum corner B.W. Webb starting in Apple’s place.
- Earlier this month, Gettleman declined to put the franchise tag for safeties on Collins, which would have held the three-time Pro Bowler’s rights for one more season at $11.2 million. Collins promptly signed a six-year, $84 million deal with Washington, which more realistically amounts to a three-year, $45 million pact with options. The $15 million annual figure and the rest of the safety market in free agency suggest that Collins would have held meaningful trade value if the Giants had held his rights.
The most bizarre path of all, though, is the one Gettleman has walked with his star wide receiver. After rumors that they were considering a Beckham trade last offseason, Gettleman signed OBJ to a massive extension in August. Beckham got a five-year, $90 million deal to stay in New York, with a $20 million signing bonus and $41 million guaranteed at signing. The $18 million annual average salary was the largest for a wideout in league history.
Less than a year after deciding they wanted Beckham, the Giants have decided he isn’t part of their future. In doing so, they’ve burned all kinds of actual cash and cap space. Let’s look at two scenarios. Scenario 1 is what would have happened if they hadn’t given him a long-term deal and franchised him for 2019. (Remember, the Giants didn’t use their franchise tag this offseason.) Scenario 2 is what actually happened.
- Scenario 1: $8.5 million paid to Beckham in cash, $8.5 million on the Giants’ 2019 cap, $0 in dead money on the 2019 cap
- Scenario 2: $21.5 million paid to Beckham in cash, $5.5 million on the Giants’ 2019 cap, $16 million in dead money on the 2019 cap
That’s not a typo. Because Gettleman (or ownership) temporarily decided to keep Beckham around, the Giants paid an extra $13 million out of their coffers and will eat $16 million in dead money on this year’s cap for the privilege of doing so. This isn’t really a big competitive concern since the Giants don’t appear to be particularly close to contending in 2019, but it’s a sign of how shortsighted the franchise was in signing OBJ before giving things up eight months later.
In making this move and moving on from Collins and Vernon, Gettleman essentially wipes the slate clean of the Reese era and further builds the Giants in his image. As ESPN’s Dan Graziano pointed out on Twitter, the Giants have one player left on their roster from Reese’s first nine drafts as general manager from 2007 to ’15, and that is long-snapper Zak DeOssie. The only other draftee left on the roster who precedes Reese’s final two drafts is quarterback Eli Manning, who was technically acquired via a draft-day trade with the Chargers when Ernie Accorsi was general manager in 2004.
Manning is somehow still the quarterback, but trading Beckham cuts whatever’s left of the 38-year-old aging legs out from underneath him. Manning has been borderline passable with Beckham on the field since he entered the lineup in Week 5 of the 2014 season, but when the former LSU star has been injured or suspended, the QB has been limited to checkdowns and has been essentially unplayable:
Seventeen quarterbacks have thrown at least 2,000 passes in that time. Manning’s marks without OBJ would put him 15th in completion percentage and last in both passer rating and yards per attempt. The only quarterback with a worse Total QBR in that span is Blake Bortles. The Giants will run out Sterling Shepard and Evan Engram, but in a draft that doesn’t appear to have a stud wide receiver and a free-agent pool that doesn’t have a No. 1 wideout, Manning is going to fire up the checkdown machine to Barkley.
The same trends hold true for New York’s performance on the whole without Beckham in the lineup. There is certainly a subset of Giants fans who will suggest that Beckham has been cancerous to the team’s chances of winning. That is not borne out by reality. When he has played the past five seasons, the Giants have gone 25-34 (.424). They’ve scored an average of 22.6 points and allowed 23.8 points per game.
Without OBJ, the Giants have gone 6-15 (.285). Their defense has been slightly worse, allowing 24.8 points per game, but their offense has shut down and scored a mere 18.5 points per contest. If you’re making the argument that the Giants can finish last with or without Beckham, they certainly appear to have a much better shot of doing so without their star receiver.
It almost seems like a waste of time to explain how good he has been for the Giants. You’ve seen him play. I wrote about how great Beckham was before last season, and I noted that he was on a path that suggested he had about a 50-50 shot of making the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He missed four games in 2018 and did not make the Pro Bowl, which reduces his chances some, but we’re talking about a 26-year-old whose performance record still points significantly toward a gold jacket in Canton. Ask the Raiders how they feel about trading away a player in that sort of class these days.
What this does for the Browns
Because the Giants are eating the $20 million signing bonus on Beckham’s deal, the Browns are getting a relative bargain as part of this contract. Cleveland essentially has OBJ signed on a five-year, $77 million pact with $19.5 million guaranteed, all but $2.75 million of which comes this season. From the Browns’ perspective, his deal averages $15.4 million per season. He’s owed $47 million over the next three seasons, which is less than Sammy Watkins — an inferior wide receiver with far less of a track record — received in unrestricted free agency last year.
This is a virtually impossible trade for the Browns to resist, even given that they handed Jarvis Landry a five-year, $75 million contract last offseason. Beckham and Landry are good friends going back to their days together at LSU and repeatedly tried to recruit each other on social media to come play for their respective teams. Now, they’ll play together. They’re going to each want the football, and this is a lot of money to devote to two wide receivers, but these two wideouts complement each other’s skill set well and shouldn’t experience any jealousy if the other has a big game.
While some will lump Beckham in with Antonio Brown as possible problem children for their respective new organizations, I wouldn’t be so sure. As former teammate Geoff Schwartz pointed out on Twitter, Beckham was a hard worker who was beloved in the Giants’ locker room. You might remember his teammates celebrating with a dance party after Beckham signed his extension in August. He gave an interview to ESPN in October in which he expressed frustration that the offense didn’t allow for him to make big plays, but he hasn’t skipped practice before key games. Unless there’s a major off-field incident that isn’t yet public record, this is not Brown redux.
It’s clear that Beckham is getting a major upgrade in going from Manning to 2018 first overall pick Baker Mayfield, who excelled during the second half of last season. In the final eight games, Mayfield ranked sixth in passer rating (106.2), seventh in QBR (70.1) and second in yards per attempt (8.6). What has to be most exciting for OBJ, though, is that Mayfield consistently made plays downfield. He led the league with 34 completions on deep passes in that time, posting a 113.9 passer rating on those throws. In that same span, Manning posted an 81.4 passer rating on deep passes.
Suddenly, the Browns look as if they have one of the deepest skill-position groups in the league. The Browns ranked 13th in my weaponry rankings last season, but that was with Josh Gordon, Corey Coleman and Carlos Hyde playing key roles. All are gone.
Now, the Browns can start the season with Nick Chubb at running back. Kareem Hunt will surely be suspended for a good amount of the 2019 season, and the move to sign the former Chiefs back after he was cut for assaulting a woman in the Cleveland hotel where Hunt lived was abhorrent, but his talent is undeniable. The Browns also have Duke Johnson as a receiving back, though there are rumors he might become available in trade talks.
At receiver, the Browns are suddenly blessed with Beckham and Landry. You might prefer the Vikings’ duo of Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, and the Rams are deeper one through three, but nobody would fight you if you suggested that the Browns have the best duo of starting wideouts in football. Second-year receiver Antonio Callaway moves into a third wideout role, and he’s going to spend all of 2019 facing single coverage. The Browns appeared to re-sign Breshad Perriman to a one-year deal earlier Tuesday, but after the Beckham deal came together, Perriman asked to be let out of his agreement and signed a one-year contract with the Buccaneers. Throw in tight end David Njoku, who racked up 639 yards and four touchdowns as a sophomore, and the Browns have explosive receivers at every spot in the lineup.
This is the official end of the Browns’ rebuilding period. For the first time in a decade, pressure will be on them to win regularly. The Ravens just lost four defensive starters, including star linebacker C.J. Mosley. The Steelers traded Antonio Brown for a pair of midround picks and are about to lose Le’Veon Bell. The Bengals nearly made it to the combine before they could find a defensive coordinator. After adding OBJ, trading for Olivier Vernon and signing Sheldon Richardson, the Browns have spent too much money and have too much talent to be happy with a 7-8-1 season again. Anything short of a playoff berth next season might qualify as a disappointment.
It’s a totally new set of expectations, and while I’m sure Mayfield is happy to take on that challenge, teams don’t always respond well. Look at the Jaguars, who ran to the playoffs in 2017, brought back their entire young core, blew out the Patriots in Week 2 last season and then totally collapsed. New coach Freddie Kitchens will have a lot of personalities to manage in his first season as a head coach.
This is yet another reminder of how valuable it is to find an effective quarterback on a rookie deal, which has been the cheat code for unlocking a playoff team under the current CBA since 2011. The Browns can afford to devote nearly $30 million of their cap to Beckham and Landry in 2019 because Mayfield has a cap hit of $7.4 million, which is less than one-third of the $23.2 million Manning will eat up on the Giants’ cap this season. Manning’s base salary of $11.5 million means he’ll make $718,750 per game this season, which is more than Mayfield will make in base salary all season, at $570,000.
Browns GM John Dorsey will deservedly get credit for making this trade, but one of the reasons the Browns can make a trade such as this and send away two draft picks is that they amassed a massive amount of draft capital from 2016 to ’17 under Sashi Brown. Brown certainly made his fair share of mistakes, and the comparisons between the former Jaguars executive and similarly doomed tanking magnate Sam Hinkie are grossly overstated, but if you want to make cross-sport comparisons, the Browns just traded for their Jimmy Butler.
Can this work for the Giants?
When there are moves such as this in which the vast majority of public opinion seems to fall toward one side being correct, I like to at least consider the scenario in which the trade might work out for the unpopular side. I’m not doing that to be contrarian — the Browns won this trade, and it isn’t particularly close — but I want to at least try to understand how the Giants might think they’ll be able to win it. In the case of the Amari Cooper trade, while the Cowboys were initially lambasted in the media for giving up a first-round pick, their best-case scenario quickly came true.
Assuming there’s no significant off-field incident that the Giants are covering up, they will move forward with a limited roster. Adding Peppers gives them a replacement for Collins, though Peppers’ struggles in space when he played free safety as a rookie were more extreme than Collins’ issues in coverage. Peppers hasn’t been a great return man as a pro and hasn’t exhibited the sort of takeaway skills Collins showed. Though Collins forced 11 takeaways in four seasons, Peppers has only two picks to show in two seasons with the Browns. Giants fans will appreciate having a born-and-raised New Jersey high school player back in the area, and Peppers will make just $3.2 million over the next two seasons, but he would have netted only a midround pick if the Browns had made Peppers available via trade this offseason.
The Giants will net the 17th and 95th picks with this trade; it has to be a disappointment that they couldn’t convince the Browns to give them the better of their two third-round picks, and Gettleman will settle for the third-rounder the Patriots sent the Browns for Danny Shelton. By the Chase Stuart chart, those selections combine to something between the seventh and eighth overall pick in a typical draft. The traditional Jimmy Johnson chart is less impressed with midround picks and values the return as closer to the 15th overall pick.
Either way, the Giants have an extra first-round pick in the top half of this year’s draft, and they get back a third-rounder after forfeiting their pick to take cornerback Sam Beal in the supplemental draft last season. (Beal missed the entire season because of a shoulder injury.) They turned their extra fourth-round pick from the Apple trade into a high fifth-rounder as part of the Olivier Vernon trade.
The Giants don’t exactly have a draft bonanza the way the Browns did in years past or the Colts enjoyed last season, but the two first-rounders give them a lot of flexibility to move up. If they want to draft Dwayne Haskins before the Raiders come on the board at No. 4, they can move up from No. 6 to No. 2 without having to touch any future picks. The sixth and 15th picks are a nearly perfect swap on the Johnson chart for the second overall selection, and while the 49ers might have been positioned to draft Nick Bosa with that selection, they aren’t as desperate to add edge rushing talent after trading for Dee Ford on Tuesday. The OBJ trade might also indicate that ownership has decided to rebuild the roster, a move that would make Manning even less essential.
If the Giants land Haskins, and he’s a superstar, Giants fans will get over losing Beckham, just as Browns fans don’t complain about missing out on Carson Wentz or Deshaun Watson anymore. There’s also a possibility that Haskins simply falls to the Giants at No. 6, which would give them a chance to add immediate starters on both sides of the ball. Of course, even if they draft a quarterback, the Giants won’t have a superstar receiver to make life easier for Haskins as he develops. (Gettleman and coach Pat Shurmur have said on record that they prefer taller quarterbacks, which would seem to rule out Kyler Murray, but given what Gettleman said about trading Beckham, it seems as if we shouldn’t treat his public word as gospel.)
Adam Schefter reports that the Giants have traded Odell Beckham Jr. to the Browns for a first-round pick, a third-round pick and safety Jabrill Peppers.
On the other hand, while Gettleman’s defense finished 24th in DVOA for the second consecutive season and is mostly bereft of young talent, the Giants now have three of the first 37 picks in a draft full of possible defensive stars. If he wants to build his team around running the ball with Barkley and a stout defense, this is his chance to add a significant influx of talent to the defensive side of the ball.
The Giants will also save significant money in future seasons as part of the trade, and though they don’t have a ton of cap space, given their needs across the board, they can structure a deal with a low cap number in Year 1 one before using the Beckham savings in future seasons. They still need a right tackle, and it wouldn’t shock me if Gettleman went after former Panthers starter Daryl Williams to help solidify the weakest remaining spot on his offensive line.
It’s hard to feel good about this trade if you’re a Giants fan. Even in the best-case scenario, it will take years for the Giants to recover from this deal and reap the benefits of their pick. The Giants were often a frustrating team to watch with Beckham, who seemingly had to carry the offense to competence some weeks. They’re going to be an even more frustrating team to watch without him.
In an offseason that has been full of big bets, nobody made a bigger one than Dave Gettleman did Tuesday. I don’t think it’s going to pay off.