BEREA, Ohio -- Three years ago to the day, the Cleveland Browns made a blockbuster trade for the player they believed would be their long-term No. 1 wide receiver for budding quarterback Baker Mayfield.
Instead, he had injuries. He produced distractions, like reportedly telling teams to "come get me" out of Cleveland during the 2019 season. Then, he essentially forced his way out in the middle of the 2021 season via his father, who posted a video on social media highlighting times when Mayfield either didn't throw the ball to Beckham or missed him when he was open.
The Browns summarily released OBJ, who then went on to star again with the Los Angeles Rams on the way to winning a Super Bowl. Meanwhile, Mayfield -- playing with a torn labrum in his non-throwing, left shoulder since Week 2 -- continued to struggle. Cleveland’s passing game collapsed. And the Browns missed the playoffs on the way to a disappointing 8-9 finish.
But as the Browns attempt to retool their beleaguered passing attack, they've now taken another massive swing at a big-name, would-be No. 1 wide receiver.
In essence, Cleveland is banking that Cooper will be able to give its offense what Beckham never was able to -- a legitimate go-to wide receiver.
Since he made his debut in Dallas in Week 9 of the 2018 season, Cooper has ranked eighth in the league in targets (428) among receivers, seventh in receptions (292), ninth in receiving yards (3,893) and ninth in receiving touchdowns (27), according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
He has a reputation as a terrific route runner who can get open, which should greatly benefit Mayfield, assuming the Browns stick with him as their quarterback.
ESPN's Kimberley Martin has reported Cleveland has inquired about Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson. A grand jury in Houston voted Friday not to indict Watson on criminal charges. He still faces 22 civil lawsuits accusing him of sexual assault and inappropriate conduct during massage sessions.
Landing Cooper would surely make the Browns a more compelling destination for Watson, who would have to waive a no-trade clause to come to Cleveland.
But assuming Browns general manager Andrew Berry remains committed to Mayfield -- as he has indicated publicly and also privately, according to sources, this offseason -- Cooper should bolster the Browns' passing game and give Mayfield the weapon he'll need to deliver a bounce-back season in his fifth year in Cleveland.
According to ESPN Stats & Information research, Mayfield posted the worst touchdown-to-interception ratio (6-to-10) to wideouts of any non-rookie in the NFL last year. He also had the third-worst QBR (54.0) targeting wide receivers.
Mayfield didn’t play up to his capability with the shoulder injury, as he failed to rekindle his sterling 2020 form when he quarterbacked the Browns to their first playoff victory in 26 years. But Cleveland’s receiving corps -- consisting of Beckham for less than half the season, Jarvis Landry, Donovan Peoples-Jones, Ja'Marcus Bradley and rookie Anthony Schwartz -- was underwhelming, as well.
No Browns wideout topped 600 receiving yards, and only Landry had more than 35 receptions (the Browns have now granted Landry permission to seek a trade elsewhere, according to Schefter).
Cooper should pressure opposing defenses and unlock chunk passing plays in a way Cleveland’s receiving corps couldn’t last year.
During his time in Dallas, Cooper had the best vertical target catch percentage (53.3%) of any receiver in the league with at least 90 or more vertical targets, according to research by ESPN Stats & Information using NFL Next Gen Stats. He also tied for the fourth-most receiving touchdowns on vertical targets with 17, trailing only Tyreek Hill of the Kansas City Chiefs, the Green Bay Packers' Davante Adams and the Seattle Seahawks' Tyler Lockett.
Meanwhile, in 29 games with the Browns, Beckham had only 26 catches on 73 vertical targets (35.6%) and just four touchdowns on vertical routes.
The Browns might not be done upgrading the receiving corps, either. They own the No. 13 pick in April’s draft, which could give them the opportunity to select a blue-chip rookie receiver -- like Ohio State’s Chris Olave or Garrett Wilson (who went to the same Texas high school as Mayfield), USC’s Drake London or Arkansas’ Treylon Burks -- to complement Cooper, which would completely transform Cleveland's receiving unit.
Either way, the Browns already have their hands on that coveted No. 1 receiver.
This time, they're banking Cooper can be one on the field in Cleveland.