Can the Browns, Baker Mayfield continue progressing with Odell Beckham Jr. in the mix?

BEREA, Ohio -- Leading into (and immediately following) wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr.’s season-ending knee injury, Baker Mayfield’s standing as Cleveland’s franchise quarterback never seemed more tenuous.

Mayfield was coming off perhaps the worst performance of his career, including a pick-six on his first pass in a Week 6 drubbing in Pittsburgh. Then in Cincinnati, again on his first attempt, Mayfield threw another pick, this time forcing yet another pass to Beckham, who injured the knee trying to tackle the intercepting defender.

Mayfield went on to go 0-of-5 passing that first quarter before -- with Beckham sidelined -- dramatically reversing course to become one of the NFL’s most efficient passers the rest of the season while leading the Browns to their first playoff victory in 26 years, coincidentally, back in Pittsburgh.

And so, Beckham’s injury -- and Mayfield’s success that followed -- has created a quandary for the Browns as they enter the offseason.

Do they move forward with Beckham, with hopes that he finally gels with Mayfield and elevates Cleveland’s offensive ceiling?

Or do they move on, with the aim of reallocating his money to the defensive side, while netting assets to add to their young core?

General manager Andrew Berry has several big decisions ahead in his second offseason in Cleveland, including whether to offer Mayfield a lucrative extension coming off his banner third season. But making the right call on Beckham looms large, as well.

“I have said it multiple times, Odell is a good football player,” Berry said after the season, when asked how Beckham fits with the Browns moving forward, given Cleveland’s subsequent success without him. “He acclimated nicely with our program, with (coach) Kevin (Stefanski) and with his teammates. Quite honestly, I just want as many good football players on the roster as possible.

“He is dynamic.”

Indeed, Beckham remains dynamic.

In Week 4, he scored three touchdowns, including the game-clinching score, during Cleveland’s 49-38 shootout victory over the Dallas Cowboys. Beckham had other notable moments before the injury, as well, including an acrobatic touchdown grab in Week 2 against the Bengals.

Yet to this point, Beckham and Mayfield have been far from dynamic together.

In fact, dating back to the start of the 2019 season up until Beckham’s injury, Mayfield and OBJ generated the worst completion success rate (55.6%) of any QB-receiver duo in the league (with at least 100 attempts), according to ESPN Stats & Info.

Mayfield’s raw QBR targeting Beckham this past season was 73.6. To Jarvis Landry, it was 93.5. Mayfield’s completion percentage, meanwhile, targeting Beckham in 2020 was 53.8%. To Beckham’s replacement in the starting lineup, Rashard Higgins, it was 69.8%.

With Beckham this season, Mayfield ranked 14th in QBR. But after Beckham’s injury, through Week 15, only Patrick Mahomes (82.9) and Aaron Rodgers (81.8) posted higher QBRs than Mayfield’s 81.0 rating.

Did that dramatic jump come at least partly due to playing without Beckham? Or did Mayfield simply make the jump with the benefit of a few games under his belt with Stefanski, his fourth head coach in three seasons?

“In terms of the first half and the second half of the season, I do think that there is an element of our offense just evolved over the course of the year,” Berry said, pushing back on the narrative that Mayfield was better off without Beckham. “Part of that is just chemistry, time on task, you name it.

“That is really independent of Odell.”

Past can be prologue, but what matters now is whether Mayfield and Beckham can actually mesh next season. And as Berry suggested, there’s reason to believe it's impossible. Primarily because Mayfield is a different quarterback today than the one Beckham played with previously. As these playoffs underscored, Mayfield is more confident, poised and accurate than at any point last season or during the first half of this past one.

Because of his star power and gravity, Beckham might have affected Mayfield negatively in the past, despite Berry’s objections. At times, Mayfield seemed too fixated on OBJ, and often forced him ball. That doesn’t mean it has to happen in the future, especially with the growth Mayfield demonstrated down the stretch of the season.

Beckham can change a game on one play. And as the divisional round loss at Kansas City reinforced, the Browns could’ve used such a player in the 22-17 loss.

There’s still a case to be made for trading Beckham, if the right price comes along.

The Browns already have another Pro Bowl receiver in Landry. They should prioritize re-signing Higgins, given his uncanny chemistry with Mayfield. Myles Garrett needs help defensively, and additional picks or cap flexibility would help Cleveland address that. The Browns are also currently committing a boatload of money to the receiver position -- $12.79 million of Beckham’s base salary for 2021 is already guaranteed because of the injury -- especially for a run-first team that utilizes multiple tight ends more than any other offense in the league.

But the case for keeping Beckham is compelling, as well.

As Berry said, OBJ is dynamic. And Cleveland’s ceiling might very well be higher with him.