The trade of Odell Beckham Jr. on March 12 sent shock waves through Cleveland and New York to every crevice of the NFL — and beyond.
LeBron James weighed in from Los Angeles on Instagram with a drawing of Beckham in a Browns jersey. Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield screamed with joy in his home as two friends looked on. Browns receiver Jarvis Landry, Beckham’s former LSU teammate and best friend, cried.
Trade rumors about Beckham had swirled before. This time it was real. Beckham was on vacation in Europe on March 12, and his phone was blowing up.
While Cleveland exulted, New York came to a grudging acceptance that one of the NFL’s best players would be leaving and the Giants had the appearance of a train without a conductor.
A dream in the mind of Browns general manager John Dorsey, the Beckham trade came together the night before NFL free agency began — after more than a year of whispers. The Giants jettisoned their talented receiver — with the “reluctant approval” of owner John Mara.
This was a trade that happened quickly, but was laid out in advance. It was a trade that one team initially wasn’t eager to make, but the other pushed to complete. Depending on the point of view, it came about through planning and patience, diligence and duty. It involved a long-time friendship, a furious day of discussions, the Giants’ unwillingness to make last-minute phone calls about Beckham, and the San Francisco 49ers, who left the entire process disappointed.
Here’s a look at how it all came together.
February: The combine
In the midst of player workouts at the annual scouting combine on March 3 in Indianapolis, a photograph was taken inside Lucas Oil Field that went viral. In it, Dorsey sat in the stands chatting with Giants general manager Dave Gettleman.
Speculation spread that it was the beginning of the trade discussions for Beckham. In reality, it was two friends catching up. In 1982, Dorsey was on the football team at the University of Connecticut when he worked a high school camp in Kingston, New York, about midway between Manhattan and Albany. There he met a high school coach, a teacher — Gettleman.
— Scout Kelley (@ScoutKelley) March 3, 2019
A friendship was born, and 37 years later Dorsey chatted with Gettleman about Gettleman’s treatment and recovery from lymphoma. Business talk did come up, but briefly, at the end of the conversation. Dorsey and Gettleman agreed they would circle back before the start of the league year on March 13 to discuss a possible trade for Giants defensive end Olivier Vernon.
Two months prior, as the Browns’ season wound down in December, Dorsey and his staff spent hours discussing their team’s strengths and weaknesses while plotting what would be available in the offseason. Every team goes through the process at some point; the Browns under Dorsey do it in December. Pass rush was a need, and the possibility of trading for Vernon — a defensive end moved to 3-4 linebacker in his final season in New York — was one of numerous hypotheticals identified by the Browns.
Another major topic: getting help for Mayfield, who had set the rookie touchdown pass record (27).
“The object of this thing,” Dorsey said, “is to surround him with as many good football players as you possibly can.”
The Browns tried to bolster the receiver position throughout 2018. They were patient, almost to a fault, with Josh Gordon, who ended up being traded to New England before leaving the Patriots late in the season. They traded for Landry and drafted Antonio Callaway in the offseason. They brought former Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant in for a visit but didn’t sign him.
Beckham was a name who couldn’t be ignored, or dismissed.
The Browns were monitoring the Beckham situation for months, as far back as the NFL’s annual meetings in March of 2018. The Giants were testing the waters then before Beckham signed a five-year, $90 million contract extension that at the time made him the highest paid receiver in the NFL. New York wanted two first-round picks in a trade. The Browns had the first and fourth overall choices in the 2018 draft. Cleveland wasn’t giving up either. Both sides seemed to know that would never happen so an official trade conversation never ensued.
At the end of the 2018 season, Beckham’s name lingered on the Browns’ wish list. But that possibility was far more hope than realistic expectation. As Dorsey said a few days after the trade, 99 times out of 100 the hypotheticals the team develops in December wind up in the trash can by March.
But the Giants’ relationship with Beckham had hemorrhaged throughout the 2018 season. Beckham wasn’t happy when he felt coach Pat Shurmur was pushing him to get on the field in the preseason, even before he signed his record-breaking deal and while recovering from a broken leg. This was the first sign of trouble, and it didn’t get much better from there.
Shurmur made his displeasure known publicly after Beckham did an interview with ESPN’s Josina Anderson and rapper Lil Wayne. Then Beckham missed the final four games because of a quadriceps injury. It left a sour taste in everyone’s mouths after a disappointing 5-11 campaign.
The Browns paid attention to the Beckham drama but, like the rest of the league, believed the contract extension signed in late August would keep him with the Giants. They kept Beckham in mind as a matter of policy — thinking if the door was even slightly cracked, they could try to push it open.
“There was always that 1 percent chance,” Dorsey said.
Though Gettleman was simultaneously saying publicly of Beckham, “We didn’t sign him to trade him,” it was assumed around the league that the Giants’ GM would be willing to listen to offers. The 49ers were monitoring the situation and very interested.
“You have to know who you’re dealing with. Dave and John know each other so well there is total trust between them.” An NFL general manager on Dave Gettleman and John Dorsey
The Giants were slow-playing the situation, and didn’t seem all that motivated to make the massive move. They were tiptoeing around to make it seem as if they weren’t shopping their star receiver given the possibility he could still return for another season. Semantics. He could be had, as was proven true two weeks later.
And there was the relationship with Gettleman, whom Dorsey trusted.
“You have to know who you’re dealing with,” one NFL general manager said. “Dave and John know each other so well there is total trust between them.”
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Gettleman initiated contact because of his relationship with Bills general manager Brandon Beane and their interest in Brown, a player Cleveland was not interested in because of his age (31).
Gettleman good-naturedly chided Beane for not calling about Beckham after losing out on Brown, who was eventually traded to Oakland. The discussion ended there. The Bills’ involvement with Beckham was so minimal it never even reached the desk of coach Sean McDermott.
Before the Browns got involved, San Francisco was the most active suitor. It was known at the combine the 49ers wanted Beckham. Badly. Gettleman and 49ers general manager John Lynch had “numerous conversations” over the course of weeks. Lynch said during a recent interview with KNBR that the 49ers having the No. 2 overall pick worked against them in this case. “[The Giants] wanted that badly,” Lynch said.
The 49ers were willing to move from No. 2 to No. 6 in a deal that included Beckham. They just weren’t willing to relinquish the No. 2 overall pick straight up without a pick swap. Pro Bowl defensive tackle DeForest Buckner‘s name was also brought up at some point in the conversations between Gettleman and Lynch. The 49ers didn’t want to go there.
Neither the 49ers nor the Bills offered their first-round picks. “Teams were trying to see if they could steal him,” was the impression a Giants source had.
The 49ers had a deep interest in trying to complete a trade for Beckham, though, so they did not abandon hope. They believed their best offer had yet to come. They too were being patient. The draft was almost two months away when they left the combine.
March 12: Rumors prompt action
It was one day before the start of free agency and the Browns still had not brought up Beckham to the Giants in any serious way. Dorsey called Gettleman the morning of March 12 to finalize a deal for Vernon; the trade would be announced the next day on the start of the new NFL league year.
But before he called, the Browns got word that the 49ers were in serious pursuit of Beckham. It’s the kind of rumor that circulates at that time of the year. Dorsey was not sure of the 49ers’ interest or if San Francisco was going to give up the second overall pick in the draft. He knew the Browns’ first-round pick (17th overall) would be better than San Francisco’s second-round choice.
The time for patience was over: If the 49ers were truly in the mix, it was time for Dorsey to join as well.
So he called Gettleman, discussed Vernon, then brought up Beckham.
Gettleman’s response: “What do you got?”
Those four words led to a day of back and forth, with several offers exchanged. It all took place in front of first-year Browns head coach Freddie Kitchens. Normally, Dorsey would do his work alone — his penchant for secrecy is well known — but this was the day before free agency so the Browns were meeting as a staff to go over final plans. That put Kitchens in the room as discussions proceeded.
“It was kind of fun to sit and watch him work and communicate with other GMs around the league and how the back and forth goes,” Kitchens said on the “Around the NFL” podcast. “It’s almost like a car auction or something. It’s very unique. To see the respect the two men had for each other as men and put a deal together like that … it was really my first time experiencing it like that on a personal level.”
Gettleman initially wanted two first-round picks, a demand Dorsey might not have met. But Gettleman also knew he needed a safety to replace Landon Collins, whom he chose not to give the franchise tag and who signed with the Redskins. The Giants had an affinity for the Browns’ Jabrill Peppers, a first-round pick in 2017 whom they had graded high. The Browns proposed including defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah in the deal, but the Giants weren’t interested. They wanted Peppers.
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The Browns liked Peppers as a player and as a fiery presence, but they were not going to let a safety get in the way of acquiring one of the most explosive playmakers in the league. It turned discussions into reality. The Giants viewed Peppers as the second first-round pick in the deal.
“About four o’clock, it was like, ‘You know what, there may be a chance this may work out,'” Dorsey said.
Beckham, in Europe, heard of the rumors through ESPN’s Anderson, who had gotten wind of the potential trade discussions. At 2:24 p.m., she tweeted that an AFC North team had reached out about Beckham. Eventually Landry texted Beckham to tell him the Browns really wanted him.
Beckham seemed caught in the whirlwind, just like the rest of the NFL world.
In the early evening, the teams agreed. Beckham would be traded for the 17th overall pick in the first round of this year’s draft, a third-round pick and Peppers. It would officially be merged into a bigger deal that included Vernon going to the Browns and guard Kevin Zeitler to the Giants.
“It was quiet for a minute at dinner. It just was a lot. I don’t even know how else to describe it, but it’s just a lot, a lot of emotions, a lot of thoughts that run through your mind. Your whole life’s changing. It’s still the same, in theory, but it’s changing …” Odell Beckham
The next step was convincing Giants ownership, particularly Mara. Gettleman called Giants chairman Steve Tisch first. He then called Mara, who had some pause about making the move. He needed to think on his 40-mile ride home from work. Mara conceded there was a “reluctant approval.” Though there had been issues in the past — the Josh Norman game, a questionable video from France, the interview with ESPN’s Anderson and Lil Wayne, fake urinating on the field and more — ownership didn’t view Beckham and his transcendent talent as unmanageable. Tisch orbits in Hollywood circles as a successful movie producer. He knows how to handle difficult and unique personalities.
The Giants have gone out of their way post-trade to downplay the notion they tired of Beckham. Shurmur called the narrative false. But it’s impossible to ignore the incidents that put a strain on the relationship between Beckham, his coach and the organization. Everything was taken into consideration before the decision to trade Beckham was finalized.
As he ate dinner across the Atlantic, Beckham received a call from Gettleman.
“I picked up the phone and I took the call,” Beckham said. “‘All right.’ It was quiet for a minute at dinner. It just was a lot. I don’t even know how else to describe it, but it’s just a lot, a lot of emotions, a lot of thoughts that run through your mind. Your whole life’s changing. It’s still the same, in theory, but it’s changing, so I just took it to process.”
In the end, when it came to offers that prompted the Giants to think seriously about trading Beckham, it was Cleveland and, curiously, nobody else. Gettleman wound up agreeing to the trade deal without shopping the Browns’ deal or trying to lure in any last-minute suitors.
The 49ers were stunned. Lynch and Gettleman had multiple conversations spanning weeks. Despite the 49ers monitoring the situation closely, they ultimately never heard from the Giants before the trade was made. Gettleman’s contact with Lynch ended the days prior to the conversations with Cleveland. It’s strongly believed the 49ers would have been willing to offer more for a wide receiver of Beckham’s stature, according to a league source.
The Giants now own three of the top 37 picks in the draft, and five of the top 108. The Browns have given Mayfield the immense talent and ability of Beckham to pair with Landry and running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt.
Cleveland rejoiced. Fans ran in the streets, and newly printed T-shirts flew off the shelves.
LeBron James, now playing for the Lakers, tweeted his happiness about the city where he used to play. James and Beckham are friends, and run in many of the same celebrity circles. When Beckham called to ask about Cleveland, James told him: “You’re going to love it.”
Mayfield called Beckham soon after the deal was announced.
“The thing we kept saying is this can’t be real,” Mayfield said.
New York was angry and befuddled. Beckham was an immensely popular player, and Giants fans had a hard time understanding the trade — especially one year after Beckham signed his contract extension. The Giants insist they have a plan and they are not an organization without direction, and the picks would accelerate their plan.
It won’t stop the criticism. And Mara admitted he won’t like seeing Beckham playing in Cleveland.
“It’s not going to be easy. I won’t lie to you: It’s not going to be easy,” Mara said. “I mean, he is a great player, and I hope he has a great career with the Browns. It makes it a little easier that he’s not in our conference.”
Beckham seemed to go through a roller coaster of emotions. Initially he was trying to process the dramatic change in his life. A day or two later, he appeared to settle into his new normal by tweeting to Browns fans. But a few days later he announced on social media he was “going dark” to reflect. A few days after that, he posted a drawing of himself and Landry wearing Browns jerseys.
“He’s a human being,” Kitchens said. “He has feelings. He’s not just some cartoon character who kind of pops up in the media. Two weeks ago his life was turned upside down. He didn’t know he was getting traded. He had to take some time to see what life was going to be like now, post-New York.”
Beckham’s ties with the Browns helped. Adam Henry is the receivers coach in Cleveland. He coached Beckham with the Giants and at LSU, and has a strong relationship with the family. Beckham and Mayfield have developed a friendship the past few years through Sterling Shepard, Beckham’s close friend and Mayfield’s former teammate at Oklahoma.
Beckham, too, is close with Landry, his new Browns teammate. The two became friends in high school and the bond strengthened when they went to LSU together.
Dorsey was nearly oblivious to the reaction. His sole focus was to get home after a long day at work.
“The excitement I was trying to generate was to go home and make sure Jack and Catherine could see their father before they went to bed,” he said. “That is what I was doing was racing home to see them.”
On a conference call a couple of days after the trade, Dorsey soft-pedaled the deal to the point he had to be prodded to admit to its significance. He quickly learned of the magnitude of the reaction when he got out in the community.
“We’re a lot better, but I think you have to realize we’re two years away from not winning a game, right?”” Browns owner Jimmy Haslam
Browns owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam learned the same.
“Everywhere we’ve gone somebody asks us about it,” Dee Haslam said at the NFL’s annual meetings in Phoenix. “Visiting stores the other day in Arizona and California and we’d go in the stores and that’s what they would ask about.”
“We’re a lot better,” Jimmy Haslam said, “but I think you have to realize we’re two years away from not winning a game, right?”
Dorsey’s bottom line: He made a trade with a trusted friend.
“It’s a trade that represents both teams,” he said. “I think the trade helps the Giants and I think the trade helps the Cleveland Browns.”
Beckham greeted Cleveland on Monday at a standing room only news conference that had Mayfield and Landry marveling at the number of media present. Beckham talked about the shock of the deal, then he talked about accepting it, saying “this moment is going to be more iconic than we all realize right now.”
“I think,” Beckham said, “that it’s going to be one of the best things that ever happened to me in my life.”
ESPN’s Nick Wagoner and Dan Graziano contributed to this report.