What WR Odell Beckham Jr.’s signing means for the Ravens and QB Lamar Jackson

At the Ravens’ season-ending news conference in January, general manager Eric DeCosta was asked whether his front office, amid the uncertainty of quarterback Lamar Jackson’s contract situation, would have the resources to acquire a standout veteran wide receiver this offseason.

“I know what the fans would like,” DeCosta joked. “As we look at it, honestly, when you have a big-ticket item at quarterback, it makes it more challenging — not impossible. We’ll have to get creative, and there are things we can do.”

On Sunday, the Ravens made a move. It was a big one. Almost a month into free agency, they agreed in principle to a one-year deal with wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., a three-time Pro Bowl selection. The contract is reportedly worth $15 million, with another $3 million available in incentives, making it the richest-ever one-year deal for a wide receiver in franchise history.

Here’s what you need to know about the Ravens’ Easter Sunday surprise.

1. The Ravens are paying Beckham like a WR1

Only nine wide receivers have 2023 salary cap hits higher than $15 million, according to Over The Cap: DeAndre Hopkins ($30.8 million), Cooper Kupp ($27.8 million), Amari Cooper ($23.8 million), Mike Evans ($23.7 million), D.J. Moore ($20.2 million), Courtland Sutton ($18.3 million), Allen Robinson ($18.1 million), Tyler Lockett ($16.8 million) and Diontae Johnson ($16.3 million).

Only 21 receivers have contracts with an average annual value of at least $15 million: Beckham and the first nine, plus Tyreek Hill ($30 million), Davante Adams ($28 million), A.J. Brown ($25 million), D.K. Metcalf ($24 million), Stefon Diggs ($24 million), Deebo Samuel ($23.9 million), Terry McLaurin ($23.2 million), Keenan Allen ($20 million), Mike Williams ($20 million), Christian Kirk ($18 million) and Hunter Renfrow ($15.9 million).

So, yes, the Ravens are paying Beckham very handsomely — if not like a star wide receiver, then at least like a WR1. Whether the 30-year-old’s deserving of that is another matter.

In each of Beckham’s first three NFL seasons, he had at least 80 catches and 1,000 receiving yards, a feat matched only by Justin Jefferson and Michael Thomas. His past three NFL seasons were considerably less productive: 1,035 yards and 74 catches in 2019 with the Cleveland Browns, 319 yards and 43 catches in an injury-shortened 2020, and a combined 537 yards and 44 catches with the Browns and Los Angeles Rams in 2021. After tearing his left ACL in Super Bowl LVI in February 2022, only 15 months after the first tear in the same knee, Beckham missed all of last season.

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Beckham was critical to the Rams’ championship run two years ago, catching 21 of his 26 targets for 288 yards and two touchdowns over his three-plus playoff games. He averaged 2.55 yards per route run in that span, a gaudy efficiency rate that would’ve ranked fifth among the 80 wide receivers with at least 50 targets last season, according to Pro Football Focus. And Beckham did so despite playing “without an ACL,” he tweeted in July, an apparent consequence of a not-totally-successful surgery after he first injured the ligament.

If the Ravens get the Beckham who starred in the 2021 postseason, their deal will have been worth the risk. If they get the Beckham who struggled to find his way through the 2021 regular season, they will have grossly overpaid. He averaged 1.30 yards per route run in those 14 games, according to PFF, including 1.27 yards per route run in his eight games with the Rams. Demarcus Robinson and Devin Duvernay averaged 1.28 yards and 1.16 yards per route run last season in Baltimore, respectively.

2. Is this another olive branch for Lamar Jackson?

When Jackson announced his trade request on Twitter last month, he said it was partly because the Ravens had not been “interested in meeting my value.”

Beckham’s arrival likely won’t change what the Ravens are willing to offer Jackson, who can return to Baltimore on a $32.4 million franchise tag tender or sign an extension that, while perhaps not fully guaranteed, would be one of the richest in NFL history. Beckham’s arrival could, however, change how Jackson considers the value of a return to Baltimore and the Ravens’ offense.

After struggling behind a porous offensive line in 2021, Jackson asked for help up front — and got it, with a new starting right tackle (Morgan Moses), a new starting center (Tyler Linderbaum) and improvements elsewhere. According to PFF, the Ravens’ offensive line graded out as the NFL’s second-best last season, and only left guard Ben Powers needs replacing this offseason.

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And if Jackson was ever unhappy about the Ravens’ skill position talent last season? Beckham now at least has symbolic power as the face of the offense’s offseason overhaul. Since he was drafted No. 12 overall in 2014, Beckham has posted five 1,000-yard receiving seasons; Rashod Bateman and Duvernay, the Ravens’ Week 1 starters last year, have combined to play in five seasons total. Along with Nelson Agholor, another veteran offseason signing, Beckham can help guide a wide receiver group that will likely add another piece in the draft and could finally find a spark from reserves James Proche II and Tylan Wallace.

Elsewhere, coordinator Greg Roman is gone, replaced by Todd Monken, who coached Beckham during his best Browns season. Mark Andrews and Isaiah Likely should form one of the NFL’s top playmaking tight end duos. And running backs J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards, both of whom averaged at least 5 yards per carry in 2022, will be another year removed from their 2021 knee injuries.

It’s not a perfect cast, especially with the Ravens’ injury history at wide receiver. But there are certainly worse situations for Jackson to end up in. If his 2023 season becomes an audition for the contract of his dreams, Jackson looked happy on Sunday to have Beckham along for the ride. After the Ravens announced the deal, he shared a photo on Instagram of a FaceTime call with Beckham, captioned with two lightning bolt emoji and a rocket ship emoji.

In the comments below, Beckham wrote: “SHEEEEESH.”

3. The Ravens can’t avoid void years

The Ravens entered the weekend with just over $6 million in cap space. Their investment in Beckham suggests a willingness to double down on a long-ignored salary cap tactic: void years.

Before free agency opened last month, the Ravens created cap space by tacking on voidable years to the contracts of Edwards and right guard Kevin Zeitler. The “dummy” years afforded the team some much-needed flexibility in its roster building, spreading the prorated value of Edwards’ and Zeitler’s signing bonuses across more seasons.

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While teams like the New Orleans Saints have relied heavily on void years and contract restructures in recent years, the Ravens have largely abstained. Their logic: Whenever a contract ends, the remaining bill comes due. In Beckham’s case, a one-year contract with four void years could reduce his cap hit to $3.9 million in 2023, according to Russell Street Report. But if he’s not extended before next season, the Ravens would incur an $11.1 million dead-money charge in 2024.

Considering the big-ticket items remaining on the Ravens’ to-do list — namely, an extension for Jackson — that could prove significant.

“We’ve tried to be responsible with our cap,” DeCosta said at the NFL scouting combine last year. “We’ve tried to do our deals in a different way, using a structure that works for us. We’ve also tried to sign as many of our own players back as possible. In general, I think, the nature of free agency doesn’t always work as well for teams as probably teams wish it would. We see an irrational market. Along with that irrationality is teams doing contracts that look good or might feel good in the short term and really come back to bite them in the long term.

“There’s always that risk-reward [calculus]. It’s kind of like, as a kid, maybe, you know not to do something and you do it anyways. What I try to do is understand that what we do once, we run the risk of doing it again and again. The idea of precedent, the idea of putting yourself in a position where agents can say, ‘Well, you do it this time, you did it that time’ — that’s a hard thing to break away from. We try to stay consistent, understanding that it might put us in a position where we might not potentially be as good of a team in the short term. It’s just, what does the short term look like, and what does the long term look like?”

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