EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Sunday was supposed to be the Odell Beckham Jr. revenge game.
Prime time. Beckham's Cleveland Browns against the New York Giants (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC) at MetLife Stadium. Both teams have something at stake in mid-December. The Browns (9-4) are on the verge of a playoff berth, and the Giants (5-8) have a shot to win the NFC East.
The drama would have been palpable, except that Beckham isn't playing. He is rehabbing a torn ACL, the same fate as his friend Saquon Barkley, the running back with whom he was not-so-long-ago supposed to create an explosive, dream offense for the Giants that should have been hitting its stride with a young quarterback.
Instead, the Giants have scored the second-fewest points of any team in the league this season. Their marginal success is contingent on an ascending defense that was built, in part, on the trade that sent Beckham to Cleveland for first- and third-round draft picks, along with safety Jabrill Peppers. The picks produced defensive lineman Dexter Lawrence (No. 17 overall) and outside linebacker Oshane Ximines (No. 95).
Two years into the deal, advantage Giants.
"I would trade [to get] Lawrence and Peppers for Odell Beckham three times over," one NFL executive said when asked about the trade almost two years later.
Beckham has had two injury-filled seasons, his first hampered by a core muscle injury and now the ACL. His future in Cleveland is iffy, and there is reasonable doubt around the league about whether he will recover fully.
Meanwhile, Lawrence and Peppers are key starters on the Giants' defense. That allows one to overlook the $16 million in dead cap that New York stomached last season and the fact that Beckham's replacement, Golden Tate, hasn't panned out. Lawrence's and Peppers' best years are believed to be ahead of them. Ximines, who is out for the season after rotator cuff surgery, should also be a future contributor.
The last time Giants general manager Dave Gettleman was asked about the return on the trade in December 2019, he was excited about Lawrence, Peppers and Ximines. But he was also firm about not really knowing for two more years.
Well, we're halfway there.
"It's starting to look a little bit better for [the Giants]," former NFL general manager and current ESPN analyst Mike Tannenbaum said. "You can still make the argument, did they maximize what they could have gotten? That's a grade of, obviously, incomplete."
The Beckham trade officially included guard Kevin Zeitler coming to the Giants and defensive end Olivier Vernon heading to Cleveland. Both are well-compensated veterans still playing at a relatively high level.
Lawrence is perhaps the most valuable piece in the deal at this moment. He just turned 23 and has 40 tackles and three sacks while being a force in the middle of the Giants' defense. Pro Football Focus has him ranked as the 16th-best interior defender. His quarterback pressure rate of 7.8% is 12th among defensive tackles, per NFL Next Gen Stats.
"One of the better young interior players in football right now," the executive said. "He's a difference-maker."
Lawrence and defensive linemen Dalvin Tomlinson and Leonard Williams have made the Giants one of the toughest teams to run against, which often has made opponents one-dimensional and has made the back end of the defense better.
New York is seventh in the NFL in rush defense, allowing 101.5 yards per game. The belief is that once the Giants get some edge rushers, Lawrence with his push in the middle will only make them better -- and vice versa.
But some are higher on Lawrence than others. Tannenbaum views him as more of a good -- but not special -- player.
"I like Dexter Lawrence. I don't think he's a great three-down player, but I think he's a good NFL defensive lineman," Tannenbaum said.
Peppers, 25, needs four tackles Sunday against his former team to set a career high. He has 74 to go with 2.5 sacks, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and an interception.
He is viewed by a defensive coach as a "solid starter" but not a building block. Tannenbaum and the executive seem to have similar thoughts.
Still, there are no regrets on the Giants' part. Peppers is the perfect chess piece, with his athleticism and skills in defensive coordinator Patrick Graham's defense, especially near the line of scrimmage.
"Pep brings energy to the field. He loves ball," said Giants tight ends coach Freddie Kitchens, who was the head coach in Cleveland at the time of the trade. "I'm glad we've got the guys we got here."
Ximines is seen more as a rotational piece, a fringe player. He had five tackles and no sacks in four games, despite beginning the season as a starter.
Beckham was playing at a high level prior to his injury. He had 23 catches for 319 yards and three touchdowns. The executive said Beckham remained among the most physically talented wide receivers in football prior to the injury.
But Beckham didn't appear to be an ideal fit in Cleveland's run-heavy offense, much the same way that the emotional receiver was never a fit with Gettleman and former coach Pat Shurmur in the middle of a locker room purge. At the time, the Giants didn't care about the financial penalty as long as it resulted in Beckham's being elsewhere and yielding a significant return.
The Giants have seemingly tried to make Beckham disappear since the deal. Gettleman shut down any questions about the former star heading into last season, the team's first without the No. 1 receiver. That was about the time the Giants gave his No. 13 to wide receiver Reggie White Jr., an undrafted free agent who is now out of the league. Dante Pettis inherited the number recently.
When you mention the name Odell around the Giants these days, it's almost as if the answer is, "Odell who?" Asked what he remembers about when the trade went down and getting Lawrence in return, defensive captain Dalvin Tomlinson went blank.
"What's the question?" Tomlinson said this week on a conference call before tip-toeing around the topic like a ballerina.
Even Tyke Tolbert, the Giants' wide receivers coach who worked with Beckham in the NFL and at LSU and has known him since high school, didn't want to say much about his former pupil.
"It's illegal to talk about other players under contract [with other teams]," Tolbert said when asked about his current relationship with Beckham. "I'm going to let that question go. I'm good with Odell. I'm going to leave it at that."
Perhaps it's a little easier to forget what Beckham used to be with the Giants because of the results of the trade. After almost two years, it's looking pretty good.