Two Trades Overshadow an Eventful Start to Free Agency
The league season is still a few hours from officially starting, and yet the last week has been among the most chaotic in recent memory. While record-breaking contracts have been given out left and right, the two biggest moves actually came via trade, as Antonio Brown was sent to the Raiders and Odell Beckham Jr. was sent to the Browns.
Odell to the Browns
Browns get: Odell Beckham Jr.
Giants get: S Jabrill Peppers, 17th pick, 95th pick
Baker Mayfield excelled last season under then-interim OC Freddie Kitchens. From weeks 9 through 17, Mayfield posted an Independent Quarterback Rating (IQR) of 112.1, the fourth-best rating during that stretch, and a Yards per Attempt (Y/A) of 8.6, trailing only Patrick Mahomes by a tenth of a yard. With Kitchens now the head coach and with Baker having his first full offseason of preparation, that high level of play was already expected to continue into 2019. But now with Beckham in the fold, the Browns’ offense has the potential to be among the league’s most dangerous.
In 2018, Beckham was only targeted on throws more than 15 yards downfield 36 times, a criminally low rate for such a dangerous player. For reference, Julio Jones saw 65 such targets. To make matters worse, Eli Manning ranked 22nd in On-Target% (57.9) and 25th in IQR (81.2) on those throws.
Beckham should expect to be targeted downfield much more often with the Browns. During Kitchens’ tenure as OC, only Aaron Rodgers pushed the ball downfield more consistently than Mayfield. On those throws, Mayfield posted an On-Target% of 62.5 and an IQR 109.7, which ranked as the fifth- and seventh-best marks in the league during that span. Beckham should immediately become Mayfield’s go-to guy downfield, and Jarvis Landry can work the short and intermediate parts of the field where he is more comfortable. (In 2016 and 2017, 33 percent of Landry’s targets came on slants, drags, or screens, compared to only 21 percent in 2018.)
On the other end of the deal, this trade leaves the Giants in a precarious position, even before considering the dead salary cap ramifications. They’re only a handful of years away from owing Barkley a huge pay day, and have managed to trade away most of their young talent, all while not making any real effort to find a replacement for Eli. Maybe their quarterback of the future falls to them at the sixth pick this year, or maybe they use their new first round pick in a package to move up and draft their guy, but it’s hard to see a path to quick rebuild for the Giants.
The Browns also find themselves in an unfamiliar spot: betting favorites in the AFC North. It feels crazy to say about a team that is only two years removed from a winless season, but with a strong cast of skill position players on offense and a couple of young playmakers on defense, the Browns appear to be a legitimate threat in the AFC this year. It is possible that OBJ is the final piece in what has been a remarkably quick turnaround.
Brown to the Raiders
Raiders get: Antonio Brown
Steelers get: 66th pick, 141st pick
This time last year, the Steelers were legitimate Super Bowl contenders. They had a future HOF quarterback; Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell who were both arguably the best at their respective positions; and young budding talent in players like JuJu Smith-Schuster. Fast forward to now, the Steelers are fresh off of their first playoff miss since 2013, and have managed to turn their two best players into a 3rd round pick, a 5th round pick, and $21 million of dead cap.
The Raiders, on the other hand, appeared to be entering a full on rebuild last year when they shipped their best player off to Chicago, but are seemingly trying to expedite that rebuilding process with this trade. Given the incredibly low price tag and their plethora of draft capital, it is hard to blame them.
Brown provides immediate help for an offense that mostly struggled in its first season under Jon Gruden. Derek Carr was efficient, completing 68.9% of his passes, but struggled to find big plays. His Y/A of 7.3 ranked as only 20th-best among QBs with at least 200 attempts. Despite his age, Brown should provide an immediate impact downfield. On throws of at least 15 yards, Brown turned 52 targets into 614 yards and 9 touchdowns. Raiders receivers as a whole had 1,029 yards and 7 touchdowns on such throws. The Raiders are hoping Brown can turn into the consistent downfield threat they thought they were getting with Amari Cooper.
Brown can also provide additional value in the shallow routes that are the staple of Gruden’s offense. While the Raiders were mostly efficient on these routes last year (they completed 81% of slants), Brown provides the big play threat and YAC ability that the Raiders lacked. Brown’s 8.8 YAC per reception on slant routes last year ranked 2nd in the NFL behind Tyreek Hill. Raiders receivers as a whole averaged only 6.4 YAC per reception, and only 5.3 if you remove Cooper from that equation.
A lot of the Raiders’ success this season will depend on what their three first round picks turn into, but Brown provides a clear boost to an offense lacking in playmakers. He should immediately become Carr’s favorite target and be the focal point of an offense hoping to turn things around this season.