A little before the midpoint of the 2018 season, the Browns were strapped for options at wide receiver.
Rashard Higgins, one of the team’s most pleasant surprises in training camp, was hurt. So was the hero of the previous week, undrafted rookie Derrick Willies. Just four wide receivers were able to be active for Cleveland’s Week 6 matchup with the Chargers and one of them, veteran Rod Streater, was injured on punt coverage in the first quarter. As a result, Damion Ratley, who barely played during the first month of the season, was needed for extended, starter-type duty -- and thrived well under the circumstances -- in one of the Browns’ worst games of the season.
The Browns, as they stand today, are a long, long way away from that positional crisis point.
On Monday, the Browns held a press conference introducing Odell Beckham Jr., a three-time Pro Bowler who has proven to be one of the NFL’s best wide receivers since he entered the league in 2014. Next to him was Jarvis Landry, last year’s big acquisition at the position who is coming off his fourth straight Pro Bowl appearance.
The most encouraging thing for quarterback Baker Mayfield and the Browns? Behind them will be two wide receivers, Antonio Callaway and Higgins, who finished last season first and tied for second, respectively, in touchdown catches.
Over the span of a few months, Mayfield went from taking questions about who on earth would be catching passes from him to how he’d keep the team’s deep group of receivers happy with how he distributes the ball.
Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry are back together again. Take a look back at them through their friendship.
“They are team-oriented. They want to win,” Mayfield said. “Probably will just close my eyes, throw it and hope that one of them catches it. I am not worried about that. They know that I am going to do my job. I hope that they trust in me to do that.”
The Browns were at their best last year when more players got their hands on the ball. For example, Cleveland’s most efficient passing effort of the season, a Week 10 victory over the Falcons, featured nine players catching 17 passes with none of the team’s wide receivers accounting for more than two receptions apiece.
Inserting Beckham into the mix simply gives Mayfield another option to find in an offense that will continue to have its plays dialed up by Freddie Kitchens. It’s just likely he’ll find him open and in position to make big plays on a frequent basis.
Beckham has averaged more than 10.5 targets per game over his five NFL seasons. He’s made good on better than 62 percent of them and averaged 14 yards per catch along the way.
“His skillset, I would not say that it is unmatched, but it is pretty close,” Kitchens said. “He is of course one of the best players in the National Football League on any given Sunday. Like a lot of great players, the one thing that they always strive to be on is a good team, I think, because team accomplishments help individual players, and vice-versa, the individual players help team accomplishments.
“When you can marry the both together, that is when you really have something and you have something special.”
When Landry and Beckham played together at LSU, they memorably worked to get the best out of each other, working extra hours, late into the night on the JUGS machine or even with aggressive games of catch that left both with sore hands. In their final college season, they became the first receiving duo to each clear 1,000 yards in LSU history.
“Throwing to (Beckham) and just running routes on air and realizing all of the potential and the talent he has, it is unique,” Mayfield said. “Not many are able to do it. Then you have the LSU Tigers next to each other, and that is a dangerous duo. It is going to be a lot of fun, but it is something you dream about.”
The wide receivers coach who guided Landry and Beckham and pushed them during this time, Adam Henry, holds the same position now with the Browns. That significance wasn’t lost on either player as they look to get the best out of each other for the betterment of the entire team in 2019.
“He knows a lot about our lives inside and out,” Landry said. “I would say there are things I guess you can call ‘trigger points’ that makes you reflect on the time that motivates us to go harder and do more. He knows all of it. Pretty much, he has the leash on the dogs and just let them go.”