And which 2021 rookie will have the most yards?
I believe that Tutu Atwell couldn’t have asked for a better franchise to acquire his services. Most receivers would be excited to have Sean McVay as their coach and offensive coordinator, Matthew Stafford as their quarterback, and DeSean Jackson as both their teammate and professional comp. But there are plenty of reasons the think that Atwell might not contribute a high number of offensive snaps or receive a large share of the targets during his rookie campaign.
Obvious above all other reasons is that the Rams don’t appear to have an immediate need for Atwell. I do take slight issue with this argument — some people might be overvaluing the 2017-2018 seasons and overlooking LA being a bottom-third offense in 2020 — but it is true that he would have to have a banner performance in training camp and preseason to overtake the three receivers ahead of him on the depth chart. That number could even be four if Van Jefferson gets out to an early lead this year.
Jefferson, who was drafted in the exact same spot in the draft in 2020 and is three years older than Atwell, probably came into camp with an even greater expectation that he could contribute as a rookie. As the son of a former NFL player who also happens to be a highly-respected receivers, and as the draft’s oldest receiver with five college seasons spread out over two programs, Jefferson was thought to be closer to “pro ready” than most and LA had traded away Brandin Cooks to eventually acquire him.
Perhaps what Jefferson would have really needed to happen is an injury to Robert Woods or Cooper Kupp that would have necessitated him to get more targets last season — he received mostly positive reviews throughout camp — but the end results were nevertheless underwhelming.
This is not meant to be a condemnation of Van Jefferson’s rookie season, he gets to have another day in court, it’s just a reality that I’d like to let sink in before we discuss what could happen during Tutu Atwell’s rookie season.
Jefferson had opportunities going in his favor, he seemed to earn a role during training camp, but by Week 3 his playing time had fallen off dramatically. He didn’t return to the game plan until December, and when Kupp was ruled out for the divisional game against the Green Bay Packers, Jefferson received 44 snaps in his place. While he did catch six of seven targets, including a touchdown, his 46 yards falls short of calling it a “breakout game.”
Again, that’s fine. No harm, no foul, it is a rookie season. And so too will Tutu Atwell have a rookie season. We’ve seen that in some cases recently, second and third round rookie receivers can outplay most of their veteran counterparts. In many other instances, this will not be the expectation.
What should we expect from Tutu Atwell then?
First of all, we have to start keeping this fact in mind: the NFL season is 17 games now. The “1,000-yard season” won’t carry the same weight that it used to. And it also means that if I projected Atwell to have 600 yards, it wouldn’t be the same as if I projected him to have 600 yards in any other year since the NFL had a 14-game season.
Second of all, I think we have to throw out the expectations that were set when Jared Goff was the quarterback and level them up now that Matthew Stafford is the quarterback. Goff had 3,952 passing yards and 20 touchdowns over 15 games in 2019, but also got worse as the year went on: 66.5% completions, 2,162 yards, eight touchdowns, nine interceptions, 6.57 yards per attempt over his last eight starts.
Last year, Stafford had 4,084 yards, 26 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions in his 16 games, but we also have to account for his lack of support with the Detroit Lions. Goff and the Rams, Stafford and the Lions, they’re opposite sides of the same coin. Now the heads and tails have switched and that’s one of the reasons I expect Stafford to be even better than he has been in Detroit. Stafford threw 19 touchdowns in only eight games in 2019 and now that he’s switched out offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell for McVay, I think he can vie for 40 touchdowns again.
Especially in a 17-game season.
I think Stafford could potentially be in that 4,500 passing yards (maybe closer to 5,000 with the longer season) and 40 touchdowns hemisphere next season. This is just statistical nonsense, but that’s sort of what we’re doing here, right? Trying to project Atwell’s production.
Kupp has been quite consistent in the last three years, so let’s say that he has 68 yards per game and he plays in 15 of a possible 17. That comes out to 1,020 yards on nearly 100 catches. Sounds fair.
Woods hasn’t done much to break the mold on whatever Kupp does, so I wouldn’t make a drastically different number up for him. I do think that he will get his average per catch up higher again with Stafford, see deeper targets, and so I think he might be in the range of 93 catches, 1,241 yards, and five touchdowns, but that’s just a fact. I mean, a guess.
If you subtract those two figures from Stafford’s definite final season total of 4,808 passing yards, then he’s left with 2,547 yards for everyone else.
But small numbers add up quickly. You ever see a 165-point NBA game and then you check the box score and nobody scored more than 22? What the hell?
The bottom-five receiving totals on the Rams in 2020 add up to 717 yards. That’s from Johnny Mundt to Jefferson, with three running backs in between. I do think we should expect Cam Akers to increase his reps as a receiver and going up to 35 targets could get him near 300 receiving yards. It’s hard to judge what role Tyler Higbee and the other tight ends will have in this offense — or who those other tight ends even are at this point — but I don’t expect it to be more than usual. If anything, maybe less.
The team has really emphasized adding speed to the receivers unit and you’d think you’ll see more targets going to those fast players, including fourth round pick Jacob Harris, and maybe fewer targets to Higbee. But I can’t say right now.
If we assume that about 18.4% of Stafford’s 4,808 passing yards will go to those bottom-five targets, then we can knock another 865 yards off of the 2,547 remaining, leaving 1,682 yards on the field.
That’s maybe where players like Atwell, Jefferson, and DeSean Jackson come in.
The most unknown variable for Atwell is Jackson’s health and productivity. He was a viable threat, as usual, during his most recent games with the Philadelphia Eagles. It’s not fair to use the fact that he missed 75% of the games over the last two seasons as a projection for how many games he will miss in 2021, but it is fair to wonder if he can play in more than 10 or 11 contests at this stage of his career.
Ultimately, if Jackson does stay healthy, he might be able to eat up half of those 1,682 yards. Then again, we’ve never really seen what Akers could look like as a three-down NFL back with the Rams and if he’s capable of producing not 300 receiving yards, but 600 or 700. And Jefferson might have just not had as good of a relationship with Goff’s throws as he will with Stafford’s. These are difficult to predict.
Overall, Tutu Atwell shouldn’t necessarily be judged too harshly for his rookie production because once you crunch the numbers, there aren’t many opportunities left over for him. If the top three veterans are healthy, Atwell won’t see the field often, unless McVay has some drastic changes to implement to the offense with Stafford.
Consider that the fourth-most targeted wide receiver on the Rams in 2020 was Van Jefferson. He was targeted 31 times in 16 games. And Jefferson remains on the roster so where will that put Atwell?
It’s hard to say because there was no fifth wide receiver on the Rams last season to receive a target. Woods, Kupp, Jefferson, and Josh Reynolds were the only four Rams receivers to be targeted in 2020. Reynolds is gone, but Jackson has arrived.
So has Harris, a fourth round tight end selection made one year after Brycen Hopkins was a fourth round tight end selection. (Did the Rams just copy/paste their picks this year?)
In order for it to be a surprisingly great season for Atwell, it might have to be a surprisingly terrible season for somebody else. That’s not what anyone wants to see, so patience with Atwell as a receiver is required. My incredibly accurate projection?
Tutu Atwell will be targeted 46 times, he will catch 32 of those high-percentage throws, he will gain 487 yards, and he will score two times. But Atwell will also get an unknown number of carries and returns. These receiving totals are on par with the ones had by K.J. Hamler, Jalen Reagor, and Henry Ruggs III in 2020.
At the moment, Atwell has +400 odds to have more receiving yards than Elijah Moore (the favorite), Rondale Moore, Terrace Marshall, and D’Wayne Eskridge. Rondale Moore and Eskridge will also be playing in the NFC West.
Who do you believe will have the most rookie receiving yards in 2021?
Ja’Marr Chase (fifth overall) went to the Bengals, splitting Joe Burrow’s attention with Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd.
Jaylen Waddle (sixth) went to the Dolphins, where Tua Tagovailoa awaits, and DeVante Parker, Will Fuller, and Mike Gesicki as targets.
DeVonta Smith (10th) goes to the Eagles, with Jalen Hurts/Joe Flacco at quarterback, and Zach Eart/Dallas Goedert presently at tight end, but only Reagor and Travis Fulgham as the top receivers.
Kadarius Toney (20th) was next. He’ll be playing with Daniel Jones, Darius Slayton, and Kenny Golladay on the Giants.
The final first round receiver was Rashod Bateman (27th) and he’s going to the Ravens. That’s going to be Lamar Jackson, Sammy Watkins, Marquise Brown, and Mark Andrews as the top targets.