In 2016, the Ravens headed to MetLife Stadium to face the New York Giants and an Odell Beckham Jr. who, in some ways, no longer exists. The Giants’ third-year wide receiver was on his way to a second straight All-Pro season; a banged-up Ravens secondary was no great obstacle. In a 27-23 win, Beckham caught eight passes for 222 yards and two touchdowns, including a go-ahead, 66-yard catch-and-run score with 84 seconds remaining.

“That’s what we expect him to do,” Giants quarterback Eli Manning said after the game.

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It’s unlikely the Ravens ever see that version of Beckham again. If not for injuries that waylaid the record-breaking start to his career, Beckham would have been on some other team’s roster already, not available almost a month into free agency. If not for concerns about his abilities, Beckham would have fetched far more than a one-year, $15 million contract, which the Ravens agreed in principle to Sunday.

But the injuries did happen, and the opportunity to add Beckham was there (an incident last November in which he refused to leave a flight when asked probably didn’t help teams concerned about his mercurial behavior), and now the Ravens will have to figure out just how to optimize a wide receiver who plays the game at age 30 very differently from the way he did at age 23.

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In those early years with the Giants, Beckham’s explosiveness was irrepressible. He led the NFL with nine catches of at least 60 yards from 2014 to 2016. He averaged 5.6 yards after the catch per reception, according to TruMedia, ninth highest among wide receivers in that span. He racked up 4,122 receiving yards over his first three seasons; only Randy Moss and Justin Jefferson have started their career with more.

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Those highs have not been approached since. In the six years since Beckham’s third (and most recent) Pro Bowl season, he has one catch of at least 60 yards. He’s averaged just 3.7 yards after the catch. And he’s combined for 3,245 receiving yards over 53 games with three teams: the Giants, Cleveland Browns and Los Angeles Rams.

Beckham has not always had the best help. In each of Beckham’s final two years with the Giants, Manning finished with one of the NFL’s 10 worst QBRs.

In Cleveland, his on-field relationship with quarterback Baker Mayfield became so fractured that, in 2021, Beckham’s father shared a video highlighting all the times Mayfield couldn’t or wouldn’t find Beckham open downfield. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Mayfield underthrew or overthrew Beckham on 27% of his attempts, the third-highest rate of any quarterback-receiver duo in the league.

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After Cleveland waived him in early November, Beckham was thrust into a starting role on a Rams team scrambling to replace wide receiver Robert Woods, a key cog on the NFL’s top passing offense.

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But the most consistent limiting factor has been injuries. Beckham underwent season-ending surgery after he fractured his left ankle in 2017. He missed the final four games of the 2018 season with a quadriceps injury that he said was a hematoma. He’s dealt with minor back, toe, hip and shoulder injuries. ACL tears in his left knee ended his 2020 and 2021 seasons — the latter not until the Super Bowl — and sidelined him all of last season.

All of which has left Beckham’s big-play ability diminished. From 2014 to 2020, Beckham had 49 deep catches (at least 20 air yards) in 83 regular-season and playoff games, according to TruMedia, or about one every 1.7 games. Even with Mayfield as his quarterback, he had 12 deep catches in 23 games over that span.

In 2021, however, Beckham’s first year back from his first torn ACL, he had just six deep catches in 18 games — one every three games. Beckham tweeted last year that he played the “whole back half of the season without an acl,” and it’s unclear how his second knee surgery might affect him athletically.

There are a lot of unknowns as Beckham heads to Baltimore. Will quarterback Lamar Jackson be his quarterback? Will the Ravens take a wide receiver with a Day 1 or Day 2 draft pick? But there is, at least, some certainty and familiarity at offensive coordinator with Todd Monken, the Browns’ coordinator in 2019, when Beckham had his last 1,000-yard season.

Monken in February called Beckham “tremendously skilled,” and their work together in Cleveland, however limited — Browns coach Freddie Kitchens called plays that season — should help Monken’s understanding of where his new wide receiver best fits in the Ravens’ offense. It could be a role unlike any Beckham’s had over his career: more snaps in the slot, fewer vertical routes, his schematic versatility creating confusion for defenses and opportunities for other receivers.

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Entering the draft, the Ravens’ best slot receiver is tight end Mark Andrews. Their second-best slot receiver might be another tight end, Isaiah Likely. Rashod Bateman has positional flexibility, but his size and deep speed work best on the outside. Devin Duvernay, also primarily an outside receiver, averaged a disappointing 0.7 yards per route run as a slot receiver last year, according to TruMedia. New signing Nelson Agholor had just 122 yards out of the slot in 2022, according to Pro Football Focus.

If Monken’s offense needs a wide receiver to emerge inside, if only for a part-time role, Beckham might be the best candidate. Beckham lined up out wide on 79.2% of his pass snaps with the Rams in 2021, according to PFF, but he was more efficient in the slot: seven catches on eight targets for 137 yards and two touchdowns in the regular season and playoffs, with a solid 1.85 yards per route run.

Beckham ran go routes and hitch routes on nearly half of his snaps as an outside receiver that year, according to TruMedia, but on inside alignments, he was more unpredictable. He ran his most common route 21.6% of the time and his fifth-most common route 13.5% of the time.

“He’s a really smart player,” Rams coach Sean McVay said in 2021. “It’s been great being around him, and he’s picked things up very quickly. … This guy’s one of those guys that — he’s just blessed. He’s good at everything that he does.”

The hope in Baltimore is that Beckham can do everything as well as he did in the 2021 playoffs, when he looked once more like one of the NFL’s best wide receivers. In the Rams’ NFC championship game win over the San Francisco 49ers, he had nine catches for 113 yards — all as an outside receiver.

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In Beckham’s short-lived Super Bowl LVI appearance, he had a 17-yard touchdown on a slot fade against Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Mike Hilton and a 35-yard catch-and-run on a crossing route from a reduced split.

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The trickle-down effect of his injury in the Super Bowl was enormous: According to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, quarterback Matthew Stafford went from throwing passes into tight windows (less than 1 yard of separation) on just 8.3% of his attempts when Beckham was on the field to 28.6% when he was off the field.

Beckham, who’s set to earn more in 2023 than any free-agent wide receiver available this offseason, will have playmaking opportunities and expectations in his new home. Ravens wide receivers finished last in the NFL last season in receiving yards, and they’ll have not only a new coordinator but also a new wide receivers coach in Greg Lewis.

Beckham is the group’s headliner, a veteran leader finding his place — and the ball — in a receiving corps in search of a fresh start.

“He’s like every skill player,” Monken said in February. “I don’t know why everybody gets pissed off — like, he wants the ball. Well, really? I don’t know where I’ve been where a great player didn’t want the ball. I don’t know where a basketball player didn’t want shots or a baseball player didn’t want to get at-bats. That’s what they want; they want opportunities to showcase their ability.”

Jonas Shaffer is a Ravens beat writer for The Baltimore Banner. He previously covered the Ravens for The Baltimore Sun. Shaffer graduated from the University of Maryland and grew up in Silver Spring.

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