Answering biggest Odell Beckham Jr. questions: Will Giants pay up?

ByBill Barnwell ESPN logo
Sunday, June 17, 2018

After firing their coach and general manager, the New York Giantsare a team in transition. New general manager Dave Gettleman vowed to build the offense around an effective running game and backed up his words during the draft, when his first two picks were dynamic Penn State running backSaquon Barkley and bruising UTEP guard Will Hernandez. In the process, Gettleman declined to use the second overall pick on a quarterback to replace Eli Manning, and while 2017 third-rounder Davis Webb and fourth-round pick Kyle Lauletta will be developing behind the longtime stalwart, there's no obvious quarterback of the future in the fold. That particular transition is yet to come.

New York's other consideration is figuring out what to do with its best player. WideoutOdell Beckham Jr. missed most of 2017 with various injuries, starting with a preseason ankle injury and ending with a fractured fibula. In his absence, the Giants' offense was more of a theoretical construct than a going concern for opponents. The 2017 Giants were fatally flawed to an extent that Beckham would not have been able to single-handedly save them, but he might have been able to restore Ben McAdoo's scheme to some semblance of adequacy. Nobody with eyes or a memory questions what the LSU product can do.

After failing to come to terms on a contract extension last offseason, Beckham now enters the fifth-year option of his rookie deal in advance of unrestricted free agency next offseason. In about 98 percent of cases, we would be talking about the inevitability of an extension or a franchise tag. Teams don't let players like Beckham leave in the prime of their careers unless something has gone horribly wrong.

As we sit here in mid-June, though, that 2 percent suddenly feels like a plausible possibility. Beckham has reportedly been seeking a deal that would shatter the wide receiver market. He's up against a general manager with little patience for egos on a team with cap concerns. There are the dreaded off-field concerns.

Let's answer the biggest questions around Beckham's future:

How often do teams let young players as talented as Beckham leave?

It's rare. We can go back and forth about whether Beckham is the most talented wide receiver in the NFLwhen healthy, but it's clear that he's among the NFL's best players. Consider that Beckham made the Pro Bowl three consecutive times to start his career before missing out because of injury last season. Since 1990, 68 players (44 inactive and 24 active, excluding special teams contributors) have managed to make it to three or more Pro Bowls in their first four seasons, including a record nine from Beckham's draft class.

As you might suspect, these players often continue to have excellent careers. The retired players in this group finished their careers with an average of 11.5 seasons in the league. Thirty-one guys from this group are eligible for the Pro Football Hall of Fame and nearly half -- 45 percent -- are already enshrined in Canton. Players such as Champ Bailey, Troy Polamaluand Jason Witten are locks to join them in the years to come.

Polamalu and Witten spent their entire NFL careers with one team, and indeed, players who are superstars early in their pro careers often stay where they initially landed. Organizations dream of drafting players who break out into immediate superstars, so it's no surprise that they hold onto them with both hands for as long as possible. Those retired players combined to spend more than 75 percent of their respective careers with the team that initially drafted them.

The exceptions to that trend fit a few simple cases. Eleven retired or inactive players from that list of 44 moved on within six seasons of entering the league, which would be the case if the Giants moved on from Beckham either after his rookie contract ends or following a franchise tag in 2019. Five of them -- LaVar Arrington, Jevon Kearse, Jake Long, Shawne Merrimanand Lofa Tatupu -- suffered serious injuries that impacted their quality of play. Champ Bailey and Jerome Bettis were traded to acquire or open space for running backs, moves that their original teams would come to regret. Curtis Martin and Ricky Watters were signed away from their initial teams as restricted free agents through an offer-sheet structure that no longer exists. The other two players were Randy Moss and Jeremy Shockey, who were traded away after signing extensions and subsequently falling out of favor with their previous organizations.

It's too early to judge the staying power of active players, but of the 24 current NFL players who made three Pro Bowls during their first four seasons, just two have left the teams that drafted them. Ndamukong Suh hit unrestricted free agency when the Lions drafted three great players at the top of the first round under the peak of the old collective bargaining agreement and were forced to make a choice between Suh and Calvin Johnson for cap reasons. More recently, the Dolphins decided to trade Jarvis Landry after an attempt to create trade value by slapping him with the franchise tag went poorly.

That's it. The 22 other players are essentially cherished franchise icons. Earl Thomas might leave Seattle after he finishes his ninth season in the Pacific Northwest this season, but teams aren't looking to deal or move on from these players. Even given the Landry trade, it would be an historical anomaly if the Giants were to move on from Beckham.

How much would it cost to re-sign Beckham?

When Beckham was agitating for a contract extension last offseason, I wrote about how the economics of an extension didn't make sense. The Giants had Beckham under cost control over the next four years at a total of $50.6 million without having to make any sort of long-term commitment, which didn't remotely fit with Beckham's interest in becoming the highest-paid wide receiver in league history. It's the same reason the Rams weren't able to find common ground with Aaron Donald.

With the first four years of Beckham's rookie deal now out of the way, though, the math on an extension begins to make more sense. OBJ will get $8.5 million for his fifth-year option this season. After that, the Giants would need to play the franchise tag game. We don't have tag values for the years to come, but a simple estimate for the 2019 wideout tag comes in at $16 million. The Giants could then franchise Beckham in 2020 at $18.4 million and again in 2021 at $26.5 million.

That's a fundamentally different contractual landscape from last year. If the Giants don't want to make a long-term commitment and wanted to go year-to-year, they would owe Beckham $43.7 million over the next three seasons, which is right in line with what the Packers are paying Davante Adams ($43.9 million) over that same time frame. For four years, the price tag goes up to $71.4 million, which is more than the $68 million Antonio Brown got on his extension in February 2017. We're in the price range where a Beckham extension makes financial sense.

Beckham's camp has thrown a big round number out to the media. The former LSU star reportedly wants an annual average salary of $20 million per year, which would be a comfortable leap on the current standard, given that Brown's extension set the bar for average wideout salary at $17 million. It's also not an especially meaningful number, given that the Giants can inflate the back end of the deal with average salaries Beckham is unlikely to ever see.

At most positions, the largest contracts belong to players who just signed their deals over the past 12 months. That's not the case at wide receiver. Two wideouts have signed nine-figure deals, but those contracts were signed in 2011 and 2012. Larry Fitzgerald signed a seven-year, $113 million deal in August 2011, only for Calvin Johnson to top him with a seven-year, $113.5 million contract the following March. Neither deal is still an active concern, given that Megatron is retired and the Cardinals have repeatedly renegotiated Fitzgerald's contract.

The best measure of contracts is three-year value, which is the amount of money a player is in line to actually pocket over the first three seasons of any new deal. The top five there includes many of the contracts we've mentioned above and two close comparables for Beckham:

The Buccaneers never hand out signing bonuses to veterans and don't guarantee more than two years of base salaries, so they had to offer Evans a significant jump in three-year value on the previous record to stick within their contractual structure. Under Gettleman, the Panthers were far more comfortable handing out signing bonuses, so the structure of a Beckham deal would be entirely different from the one the Bucs just gave Evans.

If you were going to construct a feasible Beckham deal that set records across the board, here's one way to do it. Let Beckham keep the $8.5 million he's due to make this year and tack on a five-year, $100 million extension, giving OBJ that magic $20 million figure on his extension. The entire contract runs six years and $108.5 million, for a more accurate average of $18.1 million per season, which tops Brown's deal. We also can pay Beckham $58 million over three years, although to fit all those other demands, it's going to come with a catch in the structure. Here's what the deal would look like:

At signing, the Giants would pay Beckham his $20 million bonus while guaranteeing his first two roster bonuses (totaling $8.5 million) and his first two base salaries ($7 million) in full. They also would guarantee $4 million of his 2020 base salary for a total guarantee at signing of $39.5 million. That tops the $38.3 million Evans just got from Tampa in his new deal.

Crucially, though, the Giants get an out on the second half of this deal by virtue of that unguaranteed option bonus in 2020, which would pay Beckham what amounts to a second signing bonus of $12 million and subsequently make it difficult to move on from their star receiver until 2022. If Gettleman finds that Beckham isn't worth what the Giants invested after two years, they could cut OBJ after paying him that $39.5 million over two years. They would eat a painful $16 million in dead money, but they could spread that over the 2020 and 2021 caps, at which point Manning is unlikely to be on the roster.

How good has Beckham really been?

Very, very good. By just about any measure, historically so. When you compare the first three seasons of Beckham's career to those of every other receiver since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, Beckham looks like an all-time great in the making. He's tied for the most receptions through three years with Landry, ranks second in receiving yards behind Moss, and is fifth in receiving touchdowns. Even if you go through years 1-4 and acknowledge that Beckham missed most of the 2017 season through injuries, he ranks among the top nine in each of those receiving categories.

There's an unfair element to that analysis, though, given that Beckham is playing in a league in which it's easier to rack up receiving yardage than ever before. You might argue that the NFL has shifted to a passing-friendly approach in part because of the presence of dominant receivers like Beckham, but if we want to contextualize just how good Beckham has been, we have to work a little harder and compare players versus the other receivers of their respective eras.

Let's look at this a different way by considering ranks as opposed to raw production. During his first season, Beckham ranked ninth in the league in receptions, 10th in receiving yardage and fourth in touchdowns. It's easy enough to find those numbers for each of his first four seasons. If we remove the lowest season -- his injured 2017 campaign-- we can see that Beckham has typically ranked among the top wide receivers in the game:

We can do this same analysis for every other receiver, and indeed, I went back through the first four seasons of every pass-catcher since 1970, finding their ranks in each category and then removing their worst performance in each category from the four to see how they compared to Beckham.

Even if you measure performance by rank as opposed to raw totals, Beckham's three seasons are massively impressive. He finished 14th since 1970 in average reception rank, 12th in average receiving yardage rank, and eighth in average receiving touchdowns rank. To put that in context, there are only five previous receivers over that time frame who also finished in the top 20 in each of those same categories. Four of those five receivers -- Fred Biletnikoff, Steve Largent, Jerry Rice and Kellen Winslow -- are in the Hall of Fame. John Jefferson is the lone exception. That's remarkable company.

Beckham's catches also have been impactful. From 2014-16, no pass-catcher caught more touchdowns on drives that improved his team's win expectancy by 25 percent or more than Beckham, who had 10. No other receiver had more than six. Even if you include 2017, his 11 such touchdowns pace the league, coming in two ahead of Doug Baldwin.

There's one other table worth mentioning when it comes to Beckham's impact. The Giants committed in the short term to the 37-year-old Manning, and it appears plausible that the former first overall pick will see out the remaining two years and $33 million on his current contract. It's clear that the Giants think they can win with Eli under center.

The problem is that Eli Manning looks like a totally different human being with and without Beckham on the field. Since Beckham entered the lineup in Week 5 of the 2014 season, Manning's on/off splits with Beckham are remarkable:

It's not a surprise that a quarterback's numbers would fall without his star receiver, perhaps, but that's also a problem. The Giants don't have a wide receiver on the roster who could feasibly replace Beckham as Manning's primary target. They have a pair of useful supplemental targets in Sterling Shepard and Evan Engram, but the offense was a mess with Engram as the primary receiver for stretches last season, and Shepard still has to prove that he can play effectively as an outside receiver as the Giants transition away from playing 11 personnel on virtually every snap. The Giants would eventually be able to replace Beckham, but by the time they find a new No. 1 receiver, they would likely be without Manning.

Are there reasons to think Beckham might not be as productive?

There are. For one, the Giants were one of the most pass-friendly offenses in the league under the stewardship of McAdoo. That's probably going to change. Pass frequency is in part defined by a team's performance, given that bad teams that are often behind find themselves throwing to catch up, but the Giants threw more than similar teams. Since 2002, the typical 11-5 team has thrown the ball 54.6 percent of the time on offense. The 2016 Giants went 11-5 while throwing the ball on 60.9 percent of their plays. That was the fourth-largest gap in the NFL, and the Giants threw more than their record suggested in each of McAdoo's four seasons as offensive coordinator and/or head coach.

Gettleman already has suggested that he wants to run the ball, and his moves back that plan up. His Panthers teams, buoyed by the presence of Cam Newton, ran the ball more frequently than their records would have suggested every single season. Their run percentage by that metric ranked 28th, 25th, 31st and 28th over Gettleman's four seasons in Carolina. Gettleman didn't bring Newton up north, but the Giants did hire former Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula to come along for the ride.

This team is going to run the ball more frequently, and that's going to take touches away from Beckham. What will that actually mean? The Giants are projected to win 6.5 games in 2018, and a team that wins between six and seven games would expect to pass the ball about 57.7 percent of the time. The Giants threw the ball 60.8 percent of the time under McAdoo. Given that the average team will run somewhere around 1,000 plays per season on offense, that's about 31 pass plays per season turning into runs.

Taking into consideration the Giants' sack rate and Beckham's typical share of the offense, he would stand to lose between 65-70 receiving yards per season based solely upon the shift toward an average run frequency. That's also probably a conservative estimate, given that Beckham has played only four games with Engram in the lineup siphoning away targets. The 25-year-old has averaged 10.6 targets per game as a pro, more than anyone besides Antonio Brown. His target averages are likely to come down over the years to come.

Injuries also have to be a concern with Beckham. His toughness shouldn't be an issue, but Beckham did miss four games in his rookie season with a hamstring injury before the ankle injuries derailed his 2017 campaign. He has missed a full season of games through four pro years, with another game suspended for Beckham's infamous game-long fight with Josh Norman. That's a significant injury history, but it's not enough to keep the Giants from offering OBJ a long-term deal.

There are, of course, other concerns about Beckham. On the field, he has lost his cool under the pressure of playing against Norman. Beckham spent a year seemingly hellbent on destroying kicking nets. He inexplicably simulated urinating like a dog to celebrate a touchdown last season. Off the field, an unsavory video seemed to depict Beckham in a compromising situation in Paris earlier this year. The Giants are a conservative organization and one of the league's most traditionalist franchises.

And yet, they've succeeded in the past with stars who did or would go on to do far more questionable things off the field than Beckham. That dominant 1980s defense was led by Lawrence Taylor, who disclosed a thrice-daily cocaine habit in between a pair of Super Bowl victories under Bill Parcells. The star receiver on the Giants' Super Bowl-winning team in 2007 was Plaxico Burress, who would shoot himself in the leg at a Manhattan club less than a year after their victory. When they won four years later, the Giants' best pass-rusher was Jason Pierre-Paul, who would go on to lose several of his fingers in a 2015 fireworks accident. Good judgment is not a prerequisite to winning Super Bowls.

Is Gettleman really going to tolerate Beckham?

Maybe not, although I would argue it didn't go well for the 67-year-old Gettleman when he held a hard line in Carolina. After Norman broke out with a spectacular 2015 season and was named a first-team All-Pro, the Panthers unsurprisingly placed the franchise tag on him before he hit free agency. The Panthers held onto Norman until April 20, only for Gettleman to decide that he wasn't going to be able to make a deal he was happy with and rescind Norman's franchise tag. The move pushed Norman into the market well after the majority of free-agent money had been spent, although Washington still ponied up a top-dollar deal to bring Norman to town.

Norman has been closer to good than great during his time in D.C., where he has yet to make the Pro Bowl after two seasons in burgundy and gold. You might argue that Gettleman was right to pass on handing his star cornerback a massive deal, and in a way, he was. The flip side of that argument is that the Panthers made that decision after the cornerback market dispersed around the league, leaving a 15-1 Super Bowl contender perilously thin at corner. Gettleman drafted James Bradberry and Daryl Worley, but Bradberry was inconsistent as a rookie before taking a big step forward in 2017, while Worley was traded away after two seasons for Torrey Smith, whom the Eagles were about to release for cap reasons.

Gettleman wasn't around to see Bradberry develop. The 2016 Panthers declined notably on defense, falling from second in DVOA to 10th. They were 24th in the league againstNo. 1 wideouts after posting the league's third-best mark the previous season. After the Panthers dropped from 15-1 to 6-10, Carolina fired Gettleman in July 2017. Dumping Norman wasn't the only reason the Panthers declined, but it's fair to wonder whether Gettleman would be as aggressive about releasing a star like Beckham for nothing.

What are the chances the Giants move on from Beckham?

Pretty low. Organizations just don't let young players with a track record like Beckham's leave unless there's some significant confounding issue. If there's some unreported problem with Beckham off the field or serious concerns about his ability to stay healthy, maybe there's not a fit. If the Giants let Beckham leave in free agency after this season because they want to run the football more and don't think he's worth top-flight wide receiver money, that would be close to unprecedented.

What I do believe, though, is that if the Giants are more likely to find themselves in that scenario than the vast majority of other teams in the NFL that have had to face this possibility in years past. They have a general manager who is aggressively interested in running the ball. If Barkley turns into the new face of the franchise, the Giants won't have to be quite as concerned about fans getting disenchanted by Beckham leaving. An extra $20 million per year would go a long way toward adding help along the offensive line or to a top-heavy defense.

If the chances of Beckham leaving in a typical organization are 1 percent, they might be 2 percent with these Giants. And if Beckham does move on, it's far more likely that the Giants would franchise-and-trade their star receiver -- as the Dolphins did with Landry -- during the 2019 or 2020 offseasons. The Browns sent only fourth- and seventh-round picks to the Dolphins for Landry, but Miami had virtually no leverage with $16 million committed to a player it had neither the cap space nor the football inclination to pay.

Rumors this offseason suggested that the Giants were looking for two first-round picks in exchange for Beckham, but that's not going to happen, given that whichever team traded for Beckham would have to sign him to a record deal to keep him from free agency. That price tag was the Giants' way of saying they didn't want to trade their star wideout. If the Giants truly didn't think they could find common ground on a new deal with Beckham, would they trade him for a first-round pick? That's more plausible, if still unlikely.

Which teams would want to trade for Beckham?

Severalteams, although two of the clearest fits would never be able to strike a deal with the Giants. The Cowboys are criminally thin at wide receiver and will have cap space to work with after Tony Romo's deal clears the decks next offseason, but the Giants would never deal Beckham to their archrivals. Could you even imagine Beckham scoring against the Giants in Jerry World? Likewise, the Jets have plenty of cap space and will want to add a No. 1 wideout for Sam Darnold in the near future, but the Giants surely couldn't bear seeing him in green on the back page of the New York papers every Monday morning.

Although every organization in football would probably be willing to find a spot for Beckham at the right price, there are eight teams I could see with a realistic possibility of going after the former 12th overall pick. In alphabetical order, those teams are ...

The 49ers might be the best possible fit for Beckham, given their combination of cap space and a stable offensive environment with Jimmy Garoppolo and Kyle Shanahan both under contract through 2022. San Francisco already has invested in multiple wide receivers, but it could create a spot in the lineup next offseason by declining Pierre Garcon's option.

The Bills traded for Kelvin Benjamin, but Beckham would give new quarterback Josh Allen a stud wideout and the Bills their most dynamic wide receiver since Andre Reed or Eric Moulds. Buffalo's difficulty to attract free agents to Western New York has been overstated in years past, but the Bills might be willing to pay a premium to acquire a true top-level talent at wideout.

The Browns might have the best wide receiving corps in football with Landry, Corey Colemanand Josh Gordon -- Gordon certainly thinks so -- but Coleman hasn't been able to stay healthy, and Gordon has multiple suspensions in his past. If the Browns don't want to commit to Gordon on a long-term deal, trading for Beckham would reunite the former LSU star with Landry, his college teammate and good friend. Both Beckham and Landry have publicly attempted to recruit the other to their respective teams over the past 12 months, and the Browns would be acquiring another weapon for first overall pick Baker Mayfield. With plenty of cap room and draft picks, the Browns would have less to lose by trading for Beckham than just about anyone in the league.

The Colts already have a top wideout in T.Y. Hilton, but Beckham would be a massive upgrade on the likes of Ryan Grant and Chester Rogers as a second wideout for Andrew Luck. Indy also will have $100 million or so in cap space and an extra second-round pick from the Jets to work with next year. At some point,the Colts are going to make a major splash. They also play the Giants in 2018, so if the Giants traded OBJ after this season, they wouldn't see him again until 2022.

The Jaguars are run by Tom Coughlin, who coached Beckham with the Giants. In 2016, Coughlin said that Beckham was "a distraction,"but also said that Beckham was a "team player" who "wants to play." The Jaguars curiously gave $9.6 million to Donte Moncrief this offseason, but it was only a one-year deal. The Jags have big deals coming for the likes of Myles Jack, Yannick Ngakoue and Jalen Ramsey, but if they do decide to move on from a defensive lineman such asMarcell Dareus or Malik Jackson, they could repurpose that money to get Blake Bortles one of the best wideouts in the league.

The Patriots once bought low on Randy Moss, and while that was for a fourth-round pick, it was also for a 30-year-old version of Moss. Beckham will be 26 next offseason. It seems unlikely that the Pats would pay top dollar for a wideout after trading Brandin Cooks, but if Rob Gronkowski retires or moves on, Beckham might be their latest offensive style shift.

The Rams have to be on any list like this, if only because their appetite for acquiring star players seems endless. If Los Angeles re-signs Cooks, it would surely be out on Beckham, but if it could trade for Beckham and then recoup a third-round compensatory pick for Cooks from free agency, would Sean McVay at least give Beckham a tiny bit of consideration?

The Ravens have spent the past half-decade trying to figure out a solution at wide receiver, but the likes of Breshad Perriman and Mike Wallace haven't solved their problems. Short-term investments in players such as John Brown and Michael Crabtree this offseason aren't going to provide permanent solutions. With the Joe Flacco contract likely beginning to come off of the books after the 2018 season, Baltimore would certainly consider uniting Beckham with Lamar Jackson.

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