As the Los Angeles Rams prepared to play the San Francisco 49ers on Monday Night Football, the team released its list of inactive players an hour before kickoff. On that list was former second-round pick Tutu Atwell who was a healthy scratch.
This could have been because of the Rams’ offensive line situation and the team wanting to go heavier personnel. It could have been that McVay didn’t have confidence in the offensive line to have the ability to take shots down the field. However, the likelier scenario is that Atwell hasn’t done enough to show that he deserves a gameday roster spot. Whatever the reason, as a second-round pick, Atwell shouldn’t be a healthy scratch at this point in his career.
With the 57th overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, the Rams selected Atwell. While he was an explosive player in college at Louisville, that simply hasn’t translated to the NFL level. As a second-round pick, he has zero receptions in two years and has played 22 snaps on offense.
Drafting Atwell, the hope was that he would turn into a DeSean Jackson-esque player under Sean McVay and fill the team’s void as a punt returner. Unfortunately, that just hasn’t happened. The Rams took a vertical shot to Atwell downfield in Week 3 against the Arizona Cardinals, but Stafford overthrew the second-year player.
The chances of Atwell becoming a productive NFL player were always somewhat a long shot. About Atwell, NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein described him as,
Rail-thin slot receiver with electrifying speed and a history of hitting the home run. The problem for Atwell could be the question of whether he offers up a diversified enough skill set for teams to take a chance on such a small frame. He’s not a competitive pass catcher in traffic and doesn’t have the play strength to finish contested catches in the middle of the field. He’s a “gadget-and-go” option...The big-play potential will be enticing, but his imitations make him a niche talent who needs a very specific role, which could limit his suitors.
The Rams already went through this experiment. In 2013, Snead traded up from 16th overall to eighth with the Buffalo Bills to take Tavon Austin. Like Atwell, Austin was extremely fast and explosive in college, but his lack of size caused problems at the NFL level. Both players measured in a 5’8 and while Austin was 174-lbs, Atwell was just 149 at the time of the combine.
Austin lasted five years with the Rams, but in those five years he had 194 receptions for 1,689 yards for an average of 8.7 yards per reception. Did Les Snead really expect a different result? Yes, the Rams had Sean McVay designing an offense instead of Jeff Fisher. However, Austin had a year with McVay in 2017 and the results were underwhelming
In his one year with McVay, Austin had just 13 receptions for 47 yards. He was much more effective as a running back with 59 carries for 270 yards. Austin was traded after the season.
McVay has already had a player like Atwell and showed that there wasn’t a fit for that type of player in his offense. The hope was that Atwell would end up like a DeSean Jackson, but that simply hasn’t happened and given in the current trajectory, it likely won’t.
Meanwhile, six selections after the Rams, with the 63rd overall pick, the Kansas City Chiefs selected center Creed Humphrey. If the Rookie of the Year award could go to an offensive lineman, Humphrey would have been in serious contention last season. He finished the year listed on the Pro Football Writers of America’s all-rookie team.
Going into the 2021 offseason, the Rams had a huge need at center. With Austin Blythe on an expiring contract, the team either needed to bring him back or have some sort of plan to replace him.
The Rams had Austin Corbett with experience at center, but he was excelling at guard. Brian Allen was an option, but he struggled in 2019 and hadn’t played in over a year due to injuries.
At the end of the day, they decided to let Blythe walk which turned out to be the right call. He’s started only four games since being let go by the Rams. However, to replace Blythe, the Rams opted for Allen over Austin Corbett.
Allen earned the spot in training camp, coming into 2021 with a renewed mindset. He even had a really good 2021 season, finishing as the 10th best center according to Pro Football Focus.
However, he has been an injury-prone player since the Rams drafted him. After taking over the starting role in 2019, he missed seven games and then the entire 2020 season. Allen missed or got hurt in three games again last season. To start 2022, the Rams center has now missed three of four games after injuring his knee in Week 1 against the Bills.
In back-to-back years, the Rams had expiring contracts to Blythe and Corbett and decided not to extend either player. That’s fine, but they needed to have a backup plan. Allen hasn’t shown that he can be a consistent solution and stay healthy for an entire season. Expecting him to stay healthy was a huge risk and they didn’t draft or sign a center in free agency to provide depth.
The 2021 NFL Draft was very deep at center and had an exciting pool of players. Oklahoma’s Creed Humphrey dominated at the Senior Bowl and showed to be a top-talent that could fall into the second round. DIII prospect Quinn Meinerz also performed well at the Senior Bowl and showed that he brought a toughness and meanness to the position.
The Rams met with Meinerz multiple times, showing that the rams had interest in the center prospect. The board could not have fallen more perfectly. At the 57th overall pick, the Rams essentially had their pick at center as only the injury prone Landon Dickerson had been selected. The Rams could have taken the top center prospect in Creed Humphrey, Ohio State’s Josh Meyers, Illinois’ Kenrick Green, or Meinerz.
Instead, the Rams opted for the 5’9, 155-lbs wide receiver in Atwell after already signing DeSean Jackson. This was also just one year after the Rams extended both Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods and then drafted Van Jefferson in the second round of the 2020 NFL Draft.
The Rams ignored the offensive line and invested heavily in the wide receiver position. Two years later, they have a problem at both positions.
All offseason, the team promoted Atwell as a player who was potentially ready to take the next step and become a serious deep threat. Hopefully he gets playing time and can show why the team drafted him. However, through four games, he has two targets and again, was listed inactive for Week 4.
On Monday night with Allen already hurt, Coleman Shelton was filling in at center for Allen as he has the last two weeks. In the first quarter of the game, Shelton left with an ankle injury and didn't return. This left the Rams with Jeremiah Kolone to play center who allowed four pressures in 58 snaps.
The Rams entered the season with Allen as the only listed center on the roster. The only other player with center experience was Shelton who was also the starter at right guard, replacing Corbett.
Stafford has been sacked 16 times in four games.
At wide receiver, Jefferson has been out all year and the Rams have struggled to find an option in the receiving game outside of Kupp. This is where a second round pick should be able to step in.
This is why Atwell over Humphrey will always be a topic of conversation amongst. Humphrey has been a day one starter in Kansas City while Atwell is a healthy scratch in year two. Currently, Humphrey is the highest-graded center according to Pro Football Focus.
This isn’t a gripe against Atwell or any player on the offensive line. It’s a simply a lack for foresight and a costly mistake by the front office. Snead has done a lot of good things as a general manager, but this miss was a very big one.
Would the Rams would be going through these same offensive line woes had they taken Humphrey or another center in the 2021 NFL Draft? The Rams needed to been able to prepare for a moment like this that should have been foreseeable.
Blythe and Corbett’s contracts were always going to expire and leave the Rams with a hole and lack of depth on the interior of the offensive line if they didn’t do anything about it.
Since 2020, the Rams have passed on interior players such as Josh Myers, Creed Humphrey, Lloyd Cushenberry III, Ezra Cleveland, etc. in favor of players at skill positions who require a good offensive line to succeed.
At some point, the fanbase is going to have to move on and accept that the Rams did take Atwell over Humphrey. Unfortunately, that could result in the team cutting Atwell when/if Odell Beckham Jr. returns or even after the season.
Some of the similar issues that the Rams had in 2019 are currently happening to start 2022. Trading for Corbett turned things around during that season. As it stands, there isn’t another Corbett out there waiting to be traded for. Team don’t typically willingly trade away good offensive linemen. Until the Rams figure it out, the decision to draft a 5’8 receiver instead will haunt them.