Let’s talk about Tutu Atwell and Ernest Jones again
The Los Angeles Rams entered Friday’s day two draft action with three picks and a few needs, and by the end of the third round general manager Les Snead came away with two players and most of those same remaining needs.
But Snead has five picks to work with on Saturday, including three selections in round four, and at least he will be able to keep up with all the new speed in the NFC West.
With their first pick, the Rams chose Louisville slot receiver Tutu Atwell, one of the elite speed threats in the 2021 draft class. Atwell ran a 4.32 40-yard dash at his pro day, one of the fastest times of any prospect in this or any other year; only a hair behind Rondale Moore at 4.28 and a sliver ahead of D’Wayne Eskridge at 4.35.
The Cardinals picked Moore 49th, the Seahawks picked Eskridge 56th, and the Rams chose Atwell 57th.
Said former NFL receiver Chad Johnson: Sean McVay will be elated to have a player who can “manipulate defenders’ leverage and angles” and that Atwell is a “sight to see” in person, not on film.
Listen, when McVay see Tutu Atwell manipulate defenders leverage & angles in that rookie camp he gone be smiling ear to ear, seeing it on film is one thing but live in person young boul is a sight to see.
— Chad Johnson (@ochocinco) May 1, 2021
Atwell, who at 5’8 is the same height as Eskridge and a smidge taller than Moore, making his weight the only really outlier as compared to the other second round receivers, certainly proved himself as productive at Louisville. The year after Lamar Jackson went to the NFL and took the Cardinals’ hopes with him, the true freshman Atwell had 24 catches for 406 yards from the ironically named quarterback Jawon Pass.
As a sophomore with Malik Cunningham, perhaps more deserving of the last name ‘Pass’, Atwell zoomed out of the building with 69 catches for 1,272 yards and 11 touchdowns under first-year head coach Scott Satterfield.
DeVante Parker never even topped 900 yards during his Louisville career and Atwell’s 1,272 was a school record, more than the 1,265 yards that Harry Douglas had for the Cardinals in 2006.
In a Week 3 contest against Western Kentucky, a team that finished 20th in the nation in points allowed, Atwell had four catches for 141 yards and three touchdowns. He topped 110 yards in five of his last six contests as a sophomore, including 142 yards against a highly-ranked Miami defense, 152 yards against Syracuse, and nine catches for 147 yards and a passing touchdown in Louisville’s bowl game win over Mississippi State.
I get the concern with TuTu Atwell, he’s a complete outlier. There is almost no history whatsoever for his potential success.
But he’s an explosive WR with great speed and is an immediate contributor on special teams, too.
That offense got a lot more explosive + fun just now.
— Sosa K (@QBsMVP) May 1, 2021
Atwell returned for his junior season amid the complications of the pandemic and while he had a lower yards per reception average and those numbers were deflated a bit, Atwell finished with 46 catches for 625 yards and a total of eight touchdowns in nine games. He again had strong performances against Miami and Florida State.
He’s now a member of the Rams offense and a weapon that could be deployed almost immediately for Matthew Stafford, even in small doses.
When Snead was next on the clock, a trade down felt inevitable if he could find a decent partner wanting to move up. Make your own opinions about if the 49ers are a “decent partner” or not, but San Francisco sacrificed two early fourth round picks, the very ones that allow Snead to get to work early on Saturday, in order to take LA’s place at slot 88.
The 49ers drafted running back Trey Sermon, surely no target of Snead’s, and the Rams had to wait until pick 103 to be back on the board. When Snead was, he turned his attention not to the remaining offensive linemen — just as it was in 2020 when he and McVay opted to not select o-line help until Tremayne Anchrum in round seven — but instead to a glaring need on defense for a middle linebacker who could challenge Troy Reeder, Kenny Young, and Travin Howard for snaps.
Said linebacker Ernest Jones could also challenge to replace Micah Kiser’s role on the defense. Kiser will be a free agent in 2022 and Jones’ comp at NFL.com is “Micah Kiser.”
At his pro day, Jones ran a 4.69 in the 40-yard dash at 6’2, 230 lbs. While he’s not pushing for speed records like Atwell, Jones tested as an above-average athlete at linebacker and he’s considered to be well above average above the neck and between the armpits (where the heart is located):
Jones said whoever drafts him is “getting what you need. If you need me to play inside and make all the tackles, all the calls, be that leader in the middle, that’s what I’m doing. If you need me to go out there and cover, I’ve developed that. I’m excited about this season, and there is no need to look further than (me) because I’m going to bring everything to the table that’s needed.”
Jones fell behind as a freshman at South Carolina because of an injury in the spring, but when he was able to compete the next year he became the leader of the defense and finished with 97 tackles, 5.5 tackles for a loss, two interceptions, and five pass breakups. He was set to surpass all those stats in 2020 but the pandemic took away a few games and Jones finished with 86 tackles, five tackles for a loss. And while teammates Jaycee Horn and Isreal Mukuamu opted out midseason to prepare for the NFL Draft, Jones stayed with the team long enough to get his ankle hurt prior to the final contest of the season.
“I came in and was definitely not a vocal guy. But just being with my (teammates) and developing a connection with them it truly made me grow into the man I’m becoming. The coaching staff around me always helped me in any way I needed it. I owe this university everything, and it hurt when I couldn’t finish the season last year because I just wanted to play for that Gamecock symbol on the front of my jersey.”
There’s been little other than effusive play for Jones as a teammate, as a physical player, as a football player, as a tackler, and for his football IQ. Snead said that Jones has “great instincts on tape and a knack for finding the ball” and they they see him as a potential leader and as a blitzer.
“This is one of my guys. I think Ernest Jones is going to be outstanding. He is physical, man.” – Daniel Jeremiah on the draft broadcast
— Cameron DaSilva (@camdasilva) May 1, 2021
New Rams ILB Ernest Jones: “I’ve always just had a goal in mind that nobody can have more tackles than me at the end of the game. That just doesn’t look right for the MLB not to have the most tackles. Each game, I’m coming in there knowing I’ve got to beat everybody to the ball.”
— Stu Jackson (@StuJRams) May 1, 2021
On Ernest Jones, Snead says Rams loved his spatial awareness, loved his instincts on tape and knack for finding the ball, liked his long arms as a blitzer, and said he was one of the top players rated on their “potential leader” board. They were ready to grab him at 88 if needed.
— Jourdan Rodrigue (@JourdanRodrigue) May 1, 2021
Were these moves met with as much praise as what Jones or Atwell got for their efforts in college? Not always.
The immediate reaction grades to the transactional decisions of Les Snead and Sean McVay on Friday were not positive. Cameron DaSilva at RamsWire gave LA a “C” for both picks, noting that he felt there were better receivers available than Atwell, and that Jones is limited in coverage and as an athlete. Cam would have preferred Jabril Cox or Baron Browning, two bigger names in college and headed into the draft.
ProFootballNetwork must have thought those grades were generous, as they gave the selection of Atwell a “C-” and gave out what I assume is a rare “F” grade for the choice of Jones over Cox and Browning, saying that it was a “reach” over “much, much better players.”
Will Jones only play on special teams? Is it definitively true that he won’t have as good of a career in the NFL as Cox or Browning? I’ve yet to read my 2024 FootballOutsiders season preview, so I’ll let you know when I do.
The Tennessean gave LA a “C+” for Atwell and a “C” for Jones. The Athletic went “C-” for Atwell, noting he also had drops issues in college, but they went with a “B” for Jones. Bleacher Report went “C+” on Atwell and Jones, both.
However, Sporting News saw plenty to love with Atwell, giving the Rams an “A-” for the second round pick, calling him “the ideal complement” to Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp. Ernest Jones wasn’t as lucky at SN, getting a “C.” Better than an F.
Given how often draft grades are proven to be prescient if you simply use the George Costanza method of “doing the opposite,” then maybe Les Snead just had the best day two of his career. But less than 24 hours into their NFL careers, it’s too early to say if Tutu Atwell and Ernest Jones will be pro stars or draft mistakes.
What I do know is that they’re LA Rams.