If you feel annoyed that the LA Rams drafted a receiver with 4.35 speed on Friday instead of a center, please at least allow me to present you the receiving and tight end groups of the three other NFC West teams following the 2021 NFL draft.
The Cardinals, a year after trading for DeAndre Hopkins, who had 115 catches for 1,407 yards in his Arizona debut season, signed A.J. Green in free agency and drafted receiver Rondale Moore in the second round. Hopkins and Green aren’t out there because of speed, but Moore’s 4.28 was the second-fastest of any prospect this year.
Kyler Murray, the first overall pick in the 2019 draft, will also be throwing to former second round picks Christian Kirk and Andy Isabella, who ran a 4.31 at the combine two years ago, as well as tight end Maxx Williams.
At the college level, the air raid system has always taken years to properly implement before an offense becomes successful. Whether or not Kliff Kingsbury’s air raid offense will come to dominate the NFL or completely flop is unknown, but he’s trending in the right direction: Arizona was 32nd in passing by DVOA in 2018, then 22nd in Kingsbury and Kyler’s first year, then 12th in 2020.
The Cardinals fell apart in the back half of the season but they had no second weapon and now they’ve added Green and Moore into the mix.
Oh and the Rams finished 19th in passing DVOA in 2020, seven spots behind the Cardinals.
Sixth in passing DVOA was the Seahawks, led by quarterback Russell Wilson and receivers Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf, both of whom had over 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. Seattle ranked sixth in passing DVOA and their response was to fire offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer so that they could replace him with Shane Waldron, a longtime assistant under Sean McVay with the Rams.
The Seahawks wanted to make things a little bit better for Wilson than just Lockett and Metcalf, so they got him blocking help with veteran guard Gabe Jackson and then another weapon in the second round of the draft by selecting receiver D’Wayne Eskridge. At his pro day, Eskridge ran a 4.34 40-yard dash, tying with Ja’Marr Chase and two others for third-fastest behind Anthony Schwartz and Moore.
Finally, there was at least one team in the division that was left searching for quarterback help after LA traded for Matthew Stafford, but then the 49ers responded to trading two firsts and a third for a QB by dealing three firsts for a QB. San Francisco moved up from 12 to three and selected 20-year-old phenom Trey Lance, a prospect who is definitely mysterious and with a long ways left to go, but yet another valuable passing weapon that has been added to the NFC West.
Perhaps even in the sense that Lance could get snaps on the field as a weapon for Jimmy Garoppolo early in his career.
But it’s not as though the 49ers will need him to do that right now, since they have 2019 second round pick Deebo Samuel and 2020 first round pick Brandon Aiyuk to throw to as complements for all-pro tight end George Kittle. San Francisco also managed to re-sign left tackle Trent Williams by meeting his huge contract demands, added center Alex Mack, drafted guard Aaron Banks in round two, then running back Trey Sermon in round three.
The 49ers finished 22nd in passing DVOA last season, which is fairly surprising given eight starts by Nick Mullens, two by C.J. Beathard, nine games missed by Samuel, eight games missed by Kittle, and four games missed by Aiyuk.
I would imagine that if it was Garoppolo in Week 1, a healthy team around him next season would be even better than the one that carried him to a 13-3 record two years ago. I don’t think that it could be Lance, but that day is coming eventually.
So while I understand the argument for offensive line or defensive help, I do not agree with the argument against the Rams drafting a receiver early.
Sean McVay has a well-deserved reputation for generating offensive firepower and even dictating some personnel moves around the league just by his trendsetting ways as a playcaller with Jared Goff as the quarterback. I also think that the addition of Stafford alone will elevate the offense as a whole and that could have been enough for next season. But the facts that are hitting the Rams in the face begin with the intense competition for weapon hording that I’ve just laid out for you and end with the reality that the bar to be a “great passing team” has never been higher.
I definitely do not speak ill of Robert Woods, but the only starting receiver in the division who is older would be A.J. Green, and he might not even be a starter anymore. I’m obviously not counting DeSean Jackson as a starter any more than I’m counting on him being healthy next season. I would certainly hope and count on Cooper Kupp having many more productive years after only four seasons with the team, but he has not been nearly as reliable as Woods in terms of his health.
After those three veterans, we’re only talking about hopefuls. Players who have not proven anything more in the NFL than Tutu Atwell has at this point.
A second round pick out of Louisville, Atwell was available at 57 and after watching the Cardinals select Moore and the Seahawks select Eskridge, LA must have felt that Atwell — nearly identical to those two in everything other than weight — would not make it to 88. And given the emphasis on speed this year, I would imagine that’s a fair estimation.
Atwell may seem like a luxury, but the truth is that as a slot receiver with 4.35 type speed, there is nobody standing in between him and contributing for the Rams next season if he’s ready. Jackson is 34 and while the Rams sound confident that he can still catch up with younger players, Atwell’s athleticism is either going to jump off of the green in training camp this year or it’s not and that’s going to be a concern. Maybe there will be areas of development that require a year or two of seasoning, but the athleticism is not what teams are typically able to find from productive, good prospects after the third round.
Adding to this desire to not just catch up to the rest of the NFC West, but to sprint right past them, the Rams also selected receiver/tight end Jacob Harris in the fourth round. Harris isn’t the fastest player in the draft, but at 4.39 speed, he’s a once-every-five-years athlete for 6’5, 220 lbs prospects.
Snead also picked running back Jake Funk in the seventh round and while he is a longshot to make it on the roster for reasons that have nothing to do with him as a person or a prospect (seventh round reality), he too set some athleticism marks with his measurables this year, including a 6.71 three-cone time that topped everyone else.
Matthew Stafford, Russell Wilson, Kyler Murray, Trey Lance.
DeAndre Hopkins, Cooper Kupp, Tyler Lockett, Robert Woods, DK Metcalf, Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, George Kittle, A.J. Green, Rondale Moore, D’Wayne Eskridge, Tutu Atwell, Van Jefferson, Will Dissly, Tyler Higbee.
Duane Brown, Andrew Whitworth, Trent Williams, D.J. Humphries.
Chris Carson, Cam Akers, Raheem Mostert, James Conner.
I’ve seen a lot of reports about how a copycat league would then follow how the Bucs signed Tom Brady or had a young secondary or a deep pass rushing unit or a fantastic rookie tackle. Yes, yes, all yes.
But we can’t forget all that emphasis we had last year about the depth that Tampa Bay had amongst their weapons: Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Rob Gronkowski, Antonio Brown, Scotty Miller, O.J. Howard, Ronald Jones, Cameron Brate, Tyler Johnson, Leonard Fournette, LeSean McCoy...
Remember how that was the story of Tampa Bay — if not the NFL’s — 2020 offseason?
I see the NFC West’s trades, signings, and drafts as a response to that. And I see the Rams selection of Atwell and others as a response to what was happening in the NFC West. If they didn’t add 4.35 speed, it could have been hard to keep up.