It’s been in the history books for only eight months, but Odell Beckham’s 2014 season seems almost impossible to believe. After missing the first four games with a hamstring injury and working his way into the swing of the Giants offense over the ensuing two weeks, Beckham took over for the injured Victor Cruz and delivered one of the most staggering 10-game stretches a receiver has put up in recent memory. His average line over that span — eight catches, 123 yards, and a touchdown per game — would have been the season’s highlight for the majority of starting NFL wideouts. He finished the year with nine straight 90-yard games,1 the first time in league history that somebody went through the second half of the season without dipping under 90 once. And this is all without discussing that catch.
Yes, this is a totally arbitrary endpoint. In light of the Antonio Brown five-catch, 50-yard streak, though …
You probably don’t need me to tell you Beckham was great in 2014. However, as I go back and look at how wonderful Beckham was, I have to admit I’m concerned about 2015. There’s no reason to think Beckham’s 2014 was a fluke, or that there’s something about his talent that’s going to disappear. The biggest reason to think Beckham may struggle to build upon his stunning rookie season is a frustrating truth: When you’re as good as ODB was last year, it’s almost impossible to play any better.
Beckham finished his offensive rookie of the year campaign with some of the best numbers in football. He ranked among the top 10 in receptions (91), receiving yards (1,305), and receiving touchdowns (12). On the basis of cumulative performance, you would have no trouble making a case that Beckham was among the most productive receivers.
That also undersells his case. Remember that Beckham didn’t put up those numbers over a full season. He sat out September with a hamstring injury, making his debut against the Falcons in Week 5. Once you shift your thinking about Beckham’s performance from a season-long perspective to a per-game scope, his numbers go from impressive to otherworldly. Even with the modest-by-comparison start once he made it into the lineup, Beckham was an absolute monster on a per-week basis.
While he couldn’t match the volume production of a healthy Rob Gronkowski or Antonio Brown, Beckham paced all receivers in 2014 by averaging 108.8 receiving yards per game. That’s just insane. The 2008 Giants went 12-4 and had just one 109-yard game from a receiver (Plaxico Burress); Beckham basically averaged that for a 12-game stretch. To be fair, we’ll never know how many big games Burress would have posted that year because he accidentally shot himself in the leg in November, but it’s safe to say Beckham torched the league last season.
Prorate Beckham’s 2014 season to a 16-game campaign and it puts his freakish performance into context. Projected to a full season, Beckham would have produced 121 catches for 1,740 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns. 121-1,740-16! If we take every season of eight games or more produced by a wide receiver or tight end since the 1970 merger and prorate each to 16 games, it’s clear Beckham just produced one of the most impressive seasons in modern league history, as this list of players who averaged at least 100 yards per game points out:
A bunch of takeaways from that list:
• Calvin Johnson really deserved to catch a few more touchdowns during that 2012 season. He had six receptions end inside the opposition’s 2-yard line that year, while no other wide receiver had more than three.
• I miss 2013 Josh Gordon.
• Mark Moseley really shouldn’t have won that MVP in 1982. Even if you think Wes Chandler wouldn’t have kept that stretch up over a full 16-game season, averaging 129 yards per game is unheard of. He’s more than six yards per game ahead of Megatron’s second-place mark of 122.5.
• There sure are a lot of 2014 performances on this list. More on that in a bit.
The most important takeaway, though, is how rare it is to see a repeat performance. Jerry Rice, arguably the greatest player in NFL history, is on this list once. Randy Moss, possibly the most dominant receiver in league history during different stretches of his career, is on it once. Even those special few players who appear on this list more than once, like Marvin Harrison and Torry Holt, struggled to pull the feat off in consecutive years. The only player who was this dominant in back-to-back seasons was Megatron, who did it three years in a row between 2011 and 2013, just in case you forgot how great Calvin Johnson is after last season.
The point is that it’s close to impossible to average 100 yards per game on a regular basis. Even the best receivers in league history haven’t been able to pull that off. There’s no reason to think Beckham doesn’t deserve to be considered among the best wideouts in football after his rookie campaign, but it’s difficult to project him to be as effective in 2015 as he was in 2014.
As good as they were, the vast majority of those players declined the following season. Throwing out the 2014 players (who haven’t had a chance to build off their seasons), that 20-player group saw their receptions per game decline by about 20 percent, their yards per game decline by about 25 percent, and their touchdowns per game decline by about 15 percent.
Take those percentages off the top of Beckham’s per-game stats from 2014 and apply them to a 16-game season for 2015 and you get 96 catches for 1,305 yards and 12 touchdowns as a baseline performance for 2015. That’s about the same as Beckham’s cumulative totals from last season, but it would be a step down from how dominant he was on a per-game basis.
It’s also making a very dangerous assumption — namely, that Beckham will suit up for all 16 games. While I think most fans who don’t root for teams in green and white, blue and gray, or maroon and yellow would love to see a full season from one of the league’s most exciting players, that’s far from a sure thing. Beckham missed virtually the entire 2014 offseason and the first four games of the regular season with a pair of tears in his hamstring, an injury which he says never fully healed until after the season.
Beckham already has missed some 2015 offseason workouts with a minor injury to his other hamstring, and while he should be recovered in time to participate fully during the preseason, those hamstring woes often linger in younger players. Research by Sports Injury Predictor suggests Beckham has a 77 percent chance of reaggravating his hamstring, and research I conducted during my time at Football Outsiders found that hamstring injuries were far more likely to unexpectedly force a player out of the lineup than injuries to any other body part.
In addition, we’re rapidly getting to the point where there should be major concerns about the Giants’ ability to handle injuries. As I noted in October 2013, Jerry Reese’s draft classes have suffered from a shockingly high attrition rate, and that was before first-round picks Prince Amukamara (torn biceps) and David Wilson (career-ending spinal stenosis) suffered serious injuries.2 According to the newly released Football Outsiders Almanac 2015, the Giants have been the most injured team in football over the past two seasons. It’s impossible to identify the specific reason the Giants are suffering so many injuries, and it could just be some sort of total fluke, but the mounting evidence suggests there’s something to be worried about if you’re a Giants player.
It’s possible that Wilson might have had some meaningful level of spinal stenosis before entering the NFL.
If Beckham plays 16 games, he should be able to outperform his 12-game stats of 2014, even if he doesn’t quite affect games as much as he did a year ago. If he starts missing games because of injury, it will be much tougher. Since 1990, the average receiver to start 12 or more games in a season averaged right about 14 games the following year. If we use that estimate and assume Beckham will miss two games in 2015, his numbers fall to 84 catches for 1,141 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns.
That would put the former LSU star just behind where he was a year ago, but over 14 games as opposed to 12. I don’t think Giants fans would be disappointed by those numbers over a full season, given that first-round picks of the past have delivered disappointing wideouts like Ike Hilliard and Thomas Lewis, but part of what made Beckhamania so exciting last year is that it kept up on a weekly basis. Chop two games and 25 percent of his yards per game off and Beckham goes from being a spectacle to merely being an upper-echelon no. 1 receiver.
The other factor that could negatively influence Beckham’s numbers is one that Giants fans will be far happier to see. While it’s impossible to pretend that Eli Manning wouldn’t have found plenty of targets for Beckham, his rise coincided with the departure of no. 1 wideout Victor Cruz, who went down with a devastating knee injury against the Eagles in Week 6 and missed the remainder of the season. Cruz has reportedly been ahead of schedule in recovering from his torn patellar tendon, and it appears he might be ready to participate during Week 1, which seemed incredibly unlikely as he left the field in Philadelphia.
It would be naive to suggest Cruz will be the same talent he once was, and even if he had stayed healthy, Beckham would have taken away a fair number of Cruz’s touches. But if Cruz is able to return to the field and serve as a viable slot receiver, it would give the Giants a weapon they didn’t have after he went down last season. And that should take away touches from Beckham.
During his incredible run beginning in Week 8 last season, a Cruz-less Giants team force-fed ODB the football. According to TruMedia, over that time span, Beckham ran 381 routes and was targeted 114 times. That’s a target rate of 29.9 percent; just under one out of every three times Beckham ran a route, Manning threw him the football. The only players who ran 300 routes or more over that time frame and were targeted more frequently were Demaryius Thomas and Calvin Johnson.
Through the first four weeks of the season, with Cruz in the lead role and Beckham sidelined, Cruz was targeted on just 23.2 percent of Manning’s throws. Offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo shifted the Giants offense to throw shorter routes last year, both to keep Manning upright behind a porous offensive line and to take advantage of Cruz’s strengths. They got away from that some, and Beckham can dominate at any level downfield, but it makes sense that the Giants would want to spread the ball around and target the open receiver in lieu of forcing the ball to Beckham.
Defend It Like Beckham
There is a case to be made, of course, that Beckham will be able to keep up his performance and continue to post astronomical numbers. It’s certainly the more fun side of the argument, especially if you’re a Giants fan. (Not that I know anybody like that.)
That starts with the context of the league in 2015. You remember how that chart of guys with 100 yards per game or more included four wide receivers from 2014? Welcome to the passing era. Teams are playing faster and throwing the ball more than they ever have before, which is making previously rare dominant seasons far more likely to occur. As incredible as Johnson is, it’s not a coincidence it was he (and not Rice) who pieced together three consecutive 100-yards-per-game seasons. NFL teams averaged 3,715 passing yards between 2011 and 2013, up nearly 10 percent from the 3,386 yards they averaged during Rice’s peak from 1993 to 1995.
It’s also fair to wonder whether we could even expect Beckham’s performance to improve, let alone be sustained, because he should be getting better as a second-year wideout. The typical career path for even the best wide receivers suggests they often struggle some as rookies; even the likes of Megatron and Julio Jones were inconsistent and oft-injured as rookies before breaking out with huge sophomore campaigns. Granted, players like Anquan Boldin and Terry Glenn posted incredible rookie numbers that they rarely matched over the remainder of their career. But given that Beckham should be more familiar with the speed of the league and that he spent last year playing through the remnants of that hamstring tear, it’s not crazy to think Beckham will be more comfortable and more talented in 2015.
He’ll also be surrounded by a better offense this season. While the Giants are already down presumed left tackle Will Beatty, it’s almost impossible to imagine their offensive line will be as injury-riddled as it was a year ago. The arrival of first-round pick Ereck Flowers should be a huge upgrade on the likes of replacement-level talents like Charles Brown and Adam Snyder, who had to fill in at times last season. Even if Cruz takes a few targets away from Beckham, his presence should occupy safeties monitoring his option routes and give Beckham moments to beat them upfield for big plays. And with a year in the offseason program, the entire team should be more familiar with McAdoo’s playbook, which can be further optimized for Beckham’s world-destroying talents.
More than anything, there’s the possibility Beckham is that Johnson-esque figure who rises above the pack, that he just happened to arrive in the middle of the first round, fully formed, as the best receiver in football. It’s easy to discount his standout nature because he was only the third wideout taken in the draft last year, but it’s not crazy to imagine the NFL missing on a generational talent; just as the Giants found Beckham at 12, the Texans were able to draft J.J. Watt at 11.
It’s always difficult to extrapolate a player’s future based on what he did over 10 games. Sometimes, it’s incredibly representative of what a player is going to do; other times, it’s Josh McCown in Chicago.3 It’s often right to take a transcendent performance and project it to regress toward the pack, even if it comes from a player who looks and plays the part, as Beckham does. It’s also more fun to see Beckham light up opposing secondaries and stretch the boundaries of what we think human beings can do catching footballs. The numbers suggest Beckham is likely to return to earth and reside with other mortal receivers in 2015. As a Giants fan, here’s to hoping the numbers are wrong.
We had plenty of other data saying McCown was an anonymous backup quarterback, of course, but imagine if those eight games in Chicago in 2013 had been the first eight games of McCown’s career. He would have looked like an absolute superstar and then faded immediately afterward.