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4 reasons that Tutu Atwell could become an immediate star for the Rams

Los Angeles Rams mini camp at SoFi Stadium. (Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images

If you’ve watched a Louisville game in the last two years, then you know you can’t miss Tutu Atwell. If you’ve played defense against Louisville in the last two years, then you probably have.

One of the many hurdles in NFL draft evaluations is the fact that the college and pro games are so different. I’ll give you an example.

In a 2018 game, quarterback TaQuon Marshall led Georgia Tech to a 66-31 win over Louisville. It’s not the fact that Georgia Tech scored 66 points that is interesting. It’s that Marshall finished the game 1-of-2 passing for 12 yards. The Cardinals, the team that lost by 35 points, had 360 passing yards with three touchdowns. But the Yellow Jackets had more total yards.

Because Marshall’s 175 rushing yards led the way for a 542-yard attack on the ground. Georgia Tech rushed for eight touchdowns.

Were Calvin Johnson a recruit in 2018, I imagine he would have rather gone to Louisville over Georgia Tech. One freshman on the Cardinals that year — albeit one who we might as well start calling “THE EXACT OPPOSITE OF CALVIN JOHNSON” — was Chatarius “Tutu” Atwell, and that blowout loss to the Yellow Jackets also marks the day that he made it clear that he could be the steal of the 2018 recruiting class.

Atwell scored two touchdowns that day, more than the total number of completions by Georgia Tech in the game.

It’s an incredible achievement for any true freshman playing division-I football in the same conference as Clemson. It reaches another level of disbelief when you take into account that Atwell had been a dual-threat quarterback in high school. In Atwell’s first career game as a wide receiver at any level, he caught a 30-yard pass against Alabama.

That’s like when Clint Eastwood decided to give directing a shot after so many years of a successful acting career, and his first movie was Play Misty for Me, then High Plains Drifter, and soon after, The Outlaw Josey Wales. Eastwood went from acting to directing/acting. Atwell went from throwing and running to catching.

Atwell’s “successful westerns” phase happened over the last two years of college football. After setting a Louisville true freshman record with 132 yards against Wake Forest, Atwell entered 2019 as the team’s top weapon. This coming only a year after Louisville was the only major program to give him a scholarship offer as a three-star recruit out of Miami. Not even Miami, which as you’ll see, is clearly something that Atwell did not forget.

As I said in the beginning, when you watch Atwell play, you can’t un-see that he is so much smaller than everybody else. Even when he’s not going up against future professionals at Alabama and Clemson, Atwell is smaller to such a degree that one could imagine that Kyler Murray and Russell Wilson might like the chance to get to stand next to him at a photoshoot.

But size only matters to those who don’t produce and when it comes to production, Tutu Atwell is anything but the “opposite of Calvin Johnson”.

These are 4 reasons why I believe that Tutu Atwell could be as much of a steal for the Rams in the draft as he was for the Cardinals in the recruiting process.

1 - Atwell has always been productive

As a true freshman, playing wide receiver for the first time, Atwell caught 24 passes for 406 yards and two touchdowns.

The next year, LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase ruled college football, leading all receivers with 1,780 yards and 20 touchdowns. Justin Jefferson was third with 1,540 yards. CeeDee Lamb was sixth. Michael Pittman was ninth. And Chatarius Atwell was 10th, gaining 1,272 yards on 69 catches, with 11 touchdowns. He had one more catch and 16 more yards than DeVonta Smith, the receiver who would win the Heisman the following season.

Atwell also had more yards in 2019 than Gabe Davis, Rashod Bateman, Brandon Aiyuk, Tee Higgins, and Jerry Jeudy.

While many receivers enter the NFL out of schools that are known for inflating wide receiver stats, Atwell was Louisville’s first 1,000-yard receiver since Harry Douglas in 2007. This includes Devante Parker, Dez Fitzpatrick, Jaylen Smith, James Quick, and Eli Rogers. Atwell’s seven 100-yard games in 2019 were as many as Lamb and Devin Duvernay, and more than Pittman or Smith. He was consistently effective, scoring a touchdown in nine different games (including one with a passing touchdown), and he went over 140 on four occasions.

There have also been bad days, particularly against elite competition. Atwell was far less effective in games against Notre Dame, Clemson, and Kentucky. He did make a statement against his hometown school though. The 256 career yards and four touchdowns against Miami are Atwell’s best marks against any team.

How does he do it? The simple answer is that Tutu Atwell is a better offensive player than most of the players on defense in college football and in the ACC. There have been seven defensive players drafted within the top 60 picks over the last three years, and six of them came out of Clemson. (Can you name the one who didn’t?)

So unless Atwell was playing against Clemson (he had two catches for 44 yards as a freshman, three catches for 37 yards as a sophomore, didn’t play them last year), he was rarely playing against NFL competition.

This is something that must have worked against Atwell in the draft preparation process, but he had other important factors going in his favor.

2 - Atwell could be the fastest player on the Rams

There will be some dispute as to who the fastest player on the Rams is right now, and that is not something that you can decide by comparing 40-yard dash times. Not from history, and not even recently. That’s not the speed the NFL is really interested in anyway.

I think the first prospect who shows up to the NFL Scouting Combine in full pads and then runs the 40-yard dash all geared up should be an automatic day one pick.

Atwell’s official pro day time of 4.39 is better than good (Odell Beckham ran a 4.38) and it is the same reported time as rookie teammate Jacob Harris. But other reports say that Atwell can run a 4.27, and that would be tied as the fourth-fastest in combine history. There’s nothing on the tape, in pads, to suggest that Atwell is anything other than a neuron beaming from lobe to lobe.

McVay said after OTAs that you “could definitely feel that speed” when Atwell was at practice.

3 - Sean McVay won’t hold back a rookie if he’s ready as a rookie

I don’t believe that McVay shies away from rookies just because some highly-touted draft picks of past didn’t see much action early in their careers. Did they deserve it?

Few players do, and the Rams have been successful in trusting veteran additions over first round draft picks, so there is also less likelihood of LA being in a position to start a rookie. When those types of players come along though, McVay seems to trust them.

The Rams signed Robert Woods and traded for Sammy Watkins in 2017, but that didn’t stop Cooper Kupp from being essentially a Week 1 starter. Kupp caught four passes for 76 yards and a touchdown in his debut. Gerald Everett played in 29 offensive snaps in that same game. John Johnson became a starter in Week 5 of his rookie season. In 2019, Taylor Rapp was on the field for 31 snaps in Week 1, starting by Week 7. Jordan Fuller was an immediate starter in 2020. Sebastian Joseph-Days unofficial rookie season, after missing all of 2018, saw him become a Week 1 starter.

Even Van Jefferson was given ample opportunities to contribute in Weeks 1 and 2 of last season, but for whatever reason, his time on the field did not seem to be productive and he didn’t get back into regular action again until late in the year.

That also highlights the reality that Atwell must find snaps and targets while playing as maybe the number five or six receiver when the Rams enter training camp.

There’s no chance that Kupp or Woods will budge from their spots as the top two options for Matthew Stafford. McVay has trusted those two receivers to lead the way for his offensive in each of the last four seasons and I don’t expect 2021 to be any different in that regard. The team made this even more clear when they (somewhat recklessly) extended them both.

The addition of DeSean Jackson at $2.75 million guaranteed appears to signify that Stafford’s preferred number three will be the veteran. McVay has praised Jefferson of late, and there is reason to believe that he will have a much more important role in the offense next season. McVay did say last year that the Rams had “big plans” for tight end Tyler Higbee following his dramatic increase in production at the end of the 2019 season, but then Higbee saw a significant decrease in targets, even though he played in over 100 additional snaps.

The reality is that the Rams might have big plans for Van Jefferson right now and those plans could change. I would also think that the Rams would say that they have big plans for Tutu Atwell. I think they’re only planning good things to happen for their players.

But Sean McVay isn’t usually the type of coach to keep good players off of the field.

4 - He can be useful in more ways than one

Atwell didn’t do much work on special teams at Louisville, but he fits the profile to be a dynamic returner and McVay’s been “pleased” with his work on punts already.

It only took Atwell one offseason between high school and college to learn how to become a wide receiver. I do not doubt that he can spend one offseason between college and the pros to learn how to return kicks, and for certain players, that experience seems to build confidence and hype as they await for more chances on offense.

One player who balanced both successfully as a rookie was Jackson. In 2008, Jackson debuted with six catches for 106 yards and eight punt returns for 97 yards in a game against the Rams. He finished with 912 receiving yards and 440 punt return yards as a rookie.

Atwell’s pro comp before the NFL draft was DeSean Jackson. If you want a fifth reason, the guy blocking his path might also be a great mentor for him.