EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - Odell Beckham, Jr. wasn't at the Giants' practices this week, which didn't matter much since he hasn't been cleared to fully practice anyway. But he's getting "pretty close" according to head coach Pat Shurmur.
And that means a showdown between the Giants and Beckham could be getting pretty close too.
It may never happen, of course. It's possible the Giants and Beckham truly have reached a peace, or at least a mutual understanding of where their contract negotiations are heading. But two months ago there was that report that Beckham "will not set foot on a field without a contract extension" -- a report Beckham has yet to publicly dismiss.
Until he does, the possibility can't be ignored because a holdout is the last bit of leverage the star receiver has in his quest for a lucrative, new contract. And while holdouts rarely work in the NFL, Beckham's leverage seems pretty strong.
For the moment, Beckham is still slated to play the 2018 season under the terms of the "fifth-year option" on his rookie contract -- a decent salary of $8.459 million. Beckham, of course, wants to join the ranks of receivers like Tampa Bay's Mike Evans and Cleveland's Jarvis Landry, who signed long-term deals this offseason. And he rightfully wants his to be the largest -- possibly as large as $20 million per year.
The Giants -- after their brief, bizarre, and ill-conceived public flirtation with trading their star receiver in late March -- seem to want the same thing. They just want it done on their own timetable. Their preference, according to a team source, is to first make sure Beckham has fully recovered from the ankle surgery he underwent in October and is still the same explosive player, and to give it a little time to make sure he really is doing his best to remain controversy-free. Then they will be willing to open their vault.
But what if Beckham tries to force their hand by withholding his services? And not at the team's upcoming mandatory minicamp, since a mid-June "holdout" is largely irrelevant. What if he decides to sit through the start of training camp, or the preseason, or even longer than that?
Well, holdouts rarely work in the NFL because teams have too much built-in leverage in contract negotiations. Careers are short, so players often don't want to risk the money they're already making. Plus teams have the ability to fine holdout players $40,000 per day all summer long. And the NFL is really the ultimate team sport, where one missing player is rarely the difference between success and failure. Even a key absence can be overcome.
Beckham, though, could be unique and maybe immune to those factors, especially since there's a strong argument that without him the Giants have little chance to succeed. Yes, they've rebuilt their offensive line, fortified their defense, and added the electric Saquon Barkley. But Beckham remains their most dynamic and explosive player. He has almost literally been their offense over the last few years.
Just look at last season -- a terrible season that was markedly less terrible before Beckham got hurt. He played in four games last season before he fractured his ankle in Week 5, and he caught 25 passes for 302 yards and three touchdowns, even though the ankle that he initially hurt in the preseason clearly wasn't 100 percent. Yes, the Giants lost all four of those games.
But as miserable a season as 2017 was for Eli Manning, he was actually a good quarterback with Beckham on the field. In four games with Beckham, Manning completed 65.8 percent of his passes (108 of 164) for 1,118 yards, eight touchdowns and only three interceptions -- good for a passer rating of 94.0. In his 11 games without Beckham, Manning was 244 of 407 (59.9 percent) for 2,350 yards, 11 touchdowns and 10 interceptions -- a passer rating of only 74.8.
With a better offensive line and better health for his surrounding cast, maybe Manning wouldn't be that terrible without Beckham again. But the stronger point -- the leverage-related point -- is that with Beckham on the field, how much better will the Giants be?
The answer is: A lot. And if he's fully cleared in the next two months, in time for the start of training camp in late July -- which seems likely -- it's an open question whether that's a leverage play he's willing to wield.
It's certainly risky. Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald held out last summer while looking for a new deal and returned so late he sat out Week 1. One year later, the Rams are coming off a playoff berth, Donald doesn't have a new contract and is holding out (for now) again. Seattle safety Kam Chancellor missed the first two games of the 2015 season while holding out for a new deal. The Seahawks still went to the playoffs that season and Chancellor's new deal didn't come for two more years.
In general, owners dictate the timelines and terms of contract extensions, and the franchise tag rules give the Giants years of leverage to use over Beckham if they want. Whether Beckham will try to use his own leverage, for better or worse, is still a mystery. But if he really is "pretty close" to being cleared to fully practice, then he's pretty close to having to make that decision. It's almost time for Beckham's next move.