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Shaping up the NFL’s potential trade deadline offerings last week, two things became apparent after speaking to some general managers who will be manning the phones: Nobody is all that interested in taking on someone else’s salary-cap dump; and overvalued “just a name” players don’t have a market to speak of.
We should have learned that in early October when the Dallas Cowboys tried in vain to get anything of value for linebacker Jaylon Smith. It became apparent very quickly that teams didn’t want to be responsible for the one-time Pro Bowler’s remaining salary, leaving Dallas to cut him purely for future cap maneuvering. And we’re going to learn it again by Tuesday, particularly as it pertains to players whose trade availability amounts to little more than a salary dump.
As one AFC general manager said of Beckham Jr. last week, “Nobody is going to want that salary unless [the Browns] are going to pay part of what’s left on it [this season]. And even if Cleveland is willing to do that, which they probably aren’t, nobody is giving up anything for him. I’ll be very surprised if they can move him for anything.”
This is a consistent theme with Beckham when NFL teams speak about him. Despite him still being a “name” player among fan bases — not to mention a target of constant trade speculation — the truth is that when teams look at Beckham, they see an $8.05 million liability for the remainder of 2021. That’s how much salary he’s owed for the rest of the season, which translates into the cap he would eat up for any team that acquires him. It also represents the amount of money Cleveland would then be able to gain on this year’s cap and roll forward.
The importance of that number is debatable, given that the salary cap is expected to take a healthy jump to nearly $208 million in 2022 (as compared to $182.5 million this season). A lot of teams should have plenty of money to spend, but there will be a push by teams to extend as many of their valuable players as possible next offseason. That’s because some franchises are looking to get ahead of the big cap jumps slated to begin in 2023, when the league’s salary cap is expected to start jumping by at least $20 million per year (and possibly more) annually.
For many teams, that’s going to equate toward an aggressive push to get key extensions done sooner than later — as well as motivation to add players in free agency next offseason before contracts start reaching larger escalations at the middle levels. Long story short: It means teams are going to want as much cap space as possible heading into next offseason, so they can nail down enough players as possible before contracts start to shoot up across all stages of talent.
It’s an important factor with Beckham, even when he accounts for “only” $8 million on a team’s books this year. Not to mention the fact that his injuries and general ineffectiveness in Cleveland don’t bode well for his value, either. While the blame game is getting popular in Cleveland — trying to pin down who is most responsible for Beckham’s lack of contributions — the fact is he’s in an offense where he should be able to contribute more than he has.
Is his lack of traction a Baker Mayfield problem? Does it fall on the offensive scheme of head coach Kevin Stefanski? Is Odell the issue? What about the injuries?
The sentiment from people inside the franchise concludes that it’s a little bit of everything. There are times when Mayfield hasn’t clicked with Beckham. There are times when he has been frustrated with his use in the offense. And there have been times when Beckham hasn’t played nearly as well as some people want to assume — either because of injuries or mistakes or because he’s not the dominant player he once was.
That doesn’t mean he can’t be again. He may still hold value for a team interested in tailoring its offense toward what Beckham does well — then feeding him consistently, like the target-volume dependent player he has always been. There are certainly questions about whether he can still be the explosive player he once was, or even remain healthy for a full season. Lest anyone forget, he has played 44 of his past 74 possible games (including two postseason games last season).
Add all of that up. What you end up with is a “name” player who has a lot of lingering injuries and also been a sometimes-good-but-rarely-great player, in a league that is leaning more into passing offense than ever before. And he’s available at a time when teams are trying to be as smart as ever about their salary cap allotment.
None of that bodes well for Beckham. Nor is it particularly great that two teams that could probably use him now — the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers — are both in the same division as Cleveland. All of this creates an unmistakable problem for the Browns. It's less about whether they’re willing to part company with him and more about the realities of whether he really has any trade market at all.
As of last week, he didn’t. Maybe that changes with Tuesday’s deadline pressing. Either way, it’s clear Cleveland is picking up the phone on this one, knowing that one way or another, Odell Beckham Jr.’s time in the franchise is ticking down to an inevitable end.