It can be easy to fall into the trap of fitting a narrative to a preconceived belief, even if it is uncertain where the belief originated other than it simply being the first explanation thought of. The theory that it’s rumbling through my head on Monday morning is that the Los Angeles Rams expected to get a boost this season from their nine-person rookie class and 22 undrafted free agents.
If that is true, then the first six weeks of 2020 have fallen well short of expectations. Disappointing but redeemable news for the rookies, coaching staff and front office. But also perhaps a sign that a cap-strapped Rams team without a first round pick was more ready to compete in the NFC West sans their recent free agent and trade losses than they thought.
That will especially be true if LA can beat the Chicago Bears on Monday. A win puts the Rams in a position to compete for the NFC’s top seed as the second half of the season draws near and gives LA a key win outside of the NFC West, their first against a team that isn’t in the NFC East.
That is the good news and I want to emphasize positivity nearly as much as I want to advertise that no rookie’s entire career and future is being judged after six games. No draft pick’s long-term success or Les Snead’s decision to pick him as he did is being judged after six games. This is not condemning the 2020 LA Rams draft class. This is an evaluation of the class relative to other rookies after six games for the Rams and seven weeks of the season, which will be completed after Monday’s game.
And if that unfounded belief about LA’s desire to have a rookie class that could help them immediately was true, then that would be a judgment. The Rams have not yet got what they wanted from the nine-person draft class and the eight of them who made the final 53-man roster. There are 10 games remaining in the regular season however and several of these names could play a key role against Chicago in a few hours.
If not, there’s plenty of season left to go.
This is a quick evaluation of why these rookies may not have had much playing time yet and when those snaps could come.
Pick 54 - Cam Akers, RB
2020: 26 carries, 113 yards, one catch, four yards, 41 snaps
It is no secret that the Rams drafted Akers to compete with, replace or pair alongside next to Darrell Henderson. Akers wasn’t a player who was drafted all on potential either: 586 rushing attempts for Florida State over the last three seasons, plus 69 receptions, 34 touchdowns and a lot of broken tackles.
Akers was a fit for an offense that seemed it would have issues blocking for the run again. In Week 1, he played in 24 snaps and received 14 handoffs. It was impossible for the Dallas Cowboys to predict that 14 of Akers’ 24 snaps would go directly to him, but then other teams could start to pick that up.
He had three carries on three snaps in Week 2 before leaving with an injury. He returned in Week 5 to have nine carries on only 13 snaps. Akers has played in 41 snaps and gotten the ball on 27 of those plays. He had only one snap in Week 6’s loss to the San Francisco 49ers. McVay said that he’d be increasing Akers’ workload and then that didn’t happen.
Cam Akers player just 1 snap last week. A reporter asked Sean McVay why that was. Here’s his answer: pic.twitter.com/6rzJt0dwV1— Scott Barrett (@ScottBarrettDFB) October 21, 2020
Without interference, Henderson seems like a good bet to rush for 1,200 yards in this offense and to include a little work in the passing game. We know where Malcolm Brown kind of fits in. We don’t know yet how Akers is going to fit in, especially if he can’t pass block or be thrown into the backfield without defenses expecting him to get the ball.
Akers was the fourth running back drafted but right now is 10th in the rookie class for rushing yards, falling behind Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert this week. If he rushes for even 50 yards against the Bears, that will change his status in a hurry, but it is fair to say that the early returns on the players ahead of him (Clyde Edwards-Helaire, D’Andre Swift, Jonathan Taylor) and some behind him (Antonio Gibson, the undrafted James Robinson, Joshua Kelley, J.K. Dobbins) have been better.
57 - Van Jefferson, WR
"This is Sean McVay. He is trying to juice up that offense...Essentially, you've replaced Todd Gurley with Cam Akers & Brandin Cooks with Van Jefferson. Now, the rest of the draft, you have to figure is gonna be defense."-@VeniceMase— ESPN Los Angeles (@ESPNLosAngeles) April 25, 2020
React now on 710 ESPN https://t.co/Wda75IMccI pic.twitter.com/SauJHn1Yp5
People may have overstated the idea of Akers “replacing” Todd Gurley and Jefferson “replacing” Brandin Cooks, but the expectation was that the Rams lost valuable players who ate up a lot of snaps and needed to bring in cheaper options who could at least replace some of that lost value. Jefferson was drafted in the middle of one of the most hyped wide receiver classes in history and that means expectations from the time the pick was made to the end of his career are quite high.
And Van Jefferson fit the bill as a “pro ready” receiver who may not have the highest ceiling but whose NFL bloodlines (dad Shawn Jefferson is a former player and one of the most respected wide receiver coaches in the NFL) and four years of consistent production at Ole Miss and Florida could indicate that the 24 year old rookie wideout can help draw some attention away from Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp.
Unfortunately, Jefferson hasn’t even been able to draw enough attention from McVay to get on the field in the last four weeks.
McVay indicated after the draft that Van was seen as “a really polished route runner” who could “work edges against some elite corners” and Snead compared him to a combination of Woods and Kupp.
Rams #LARams #NFLDraft pic.twitter.com/e9tkoAKhbN— NFL Beat Writers (@32BeatWriters) April 29, 2020
After being one of the most talked about players in training camp for his high-flying catches over all-pro Jalen Ramsey, Jefferson played in 33 snaps in Week 1 and 26 snaps in Week 2. He was targeted eight times, catching five passes for 76 yards. That’s a really good start for any player but especially one who entered a crowded offense and who had more snaps in the first two games than veteran tight end Gerald Everett.
Not so the case ever since.
In the last four games, Jefferson has played in a total of 32 snaps — 18 in the 30-10 win over Washington — and caught one of three targets for eight yards. Jefferson was the 12th wide receiver drafted but there are currently 21 drafted wide receivers who have more offensive snaps this season than he does.
Van Jefferson was the 12th WR taken but so far is 22nd among rookie WRs in offensive snaps taken. Needs 3 snaps to pass 7th round KJ Hill tonight. Had 3 snaps last week.— TurfShowTimes (@TurfShowTimes) October 26, 2020
The top eight rookies in receiving yards did all go before Van Jefferson, but Bills fourth rounder Gabe Davis, Bears fifth rounder Darnell Mooney and Eagles fifth rounder John Hightower have been early day three standouts.
84 - Terrell Lewis, LB
104 - Terrell Burgess, S
Lewis missed the first four games as he was getting healthy and trying to catch up to his rookie classmates. Not a surprise for a player who slipped to the third round because of a lack of playing time in college because of injuries. Lewis has played in 23 snaps over the last two weeks and could play a role on Monday against the Bears.
In case you’re wondering, I can’t say there are any exceptional rookie pass rushers right now other than Chase Young and he hasn’t had a sack or QB hit since Week 2.
Burgess didn’t get on the fast track like teammate Jordan Fuller but he has played in three of the last four games. Burgess is a regular on special teams but what the team needs when Fuller is out is more talent at safety and linebacker.
136 - Brycen Hopkins, TE
It is fair to say that one of the reasons that Hopkins was drafted was so that the team could plan on losing Everett in free agency in 2021. But Snead did also say after the draft that “We felt like he could come in and carve out a role early, but also later.” Snead added in that they “definitely plan on implementing him in some of those exotic personnel packages.”
Sorry Atom Egoyan, no such exotica in this Hollywood story.
Another rookie with NFL bloodlines, Hopkins got almost no coverage during training camp which makes it difficult to say how he looks to coaches so far, especially since he has yet to be activated for a game. This tight end class was famously poor in positive talent evaluations and to form, the top five players at the position drafted have combined for eight catches and 86 yards thus far. Only Browns rookie fourth rounder Harrison Bryant (12 catches, 126 yards, three touchdowns) has seemed capable of reaching 300 yards as a rookie.
Snead traded down 10 spots to select Hopkins, adding the picks used on Sam Sloman and Tremayne Anchrum in the process. One player selected between 126 and 136: 21-year-old Gabe Davis. It’s early in his career obviously, but Davis is a full time receiver on team that had three great options already. What would he have looked like in some of McVay’s exotic packages?
199 - Jordan Fuller
Fuller definitely has those “Gabe Davis of defense” vibes for the 2020 rookie class. Unfortunately he has only played significant snaps in three games and remains on injured reserve with a shoulder injury. Jefferson, Burgess and Fuller were the rookie standouts of training camp and yet Fuller is the only one to perform in the regular season and he’s missed half of the games already.
234 - Clay Johnston, LB
248 - Sam Sloman, K
250 - Tremayne Anchrum, G
The fact that Fuller is so good already makes up for whatever happens in the seventh round. Perhaps the one exception there being the bad luck of picking Sloman instead of Rodrigo Blankenship.
Teams shouldn’t expect to get much of anything in the sixth and seventh rounds but LA has a starting safety when he’s healthy and the guy who has at least scored a few points. Johnston is on the practice squad, Anchrum buried on the depth chart for the offensive line.
And a conversation about the offensive line could also be had. There’s reason to monitor the offensive linemen that the Rams did not select despite their needs. Centers Lloyd Cushenberry and Tyler Biadasz have been starting for the Broncos and Cowboys, respectively, and were available to Los Angeles in the draft. I am not saying they’ve worked out as picks, but they are picks who will be watched.
At guard, Damien Lewis for the Seahawks, Solomon Kindley for the Dolphins and Michael Onwenu of the Patriots were available in the draft and have been starting for their teams. Ezra Cleveland, Josh Jones and Matt Peart could be among the tackles to watch.