The Los Angeles Rams will be missing one of their top playmakers on Thursday night when they take on the Buffalo Bills. After suffering a knee injury late in training camp, Van Jefferson has been ruled out for Week 1.
Last season, Jefferson took a major step forward in year two, becoming a major part of the Rams offense. Among Rams receivers, Jefferson ranked second on the team in both yards and receptions. After just 19 receptions for 220 yards as a rookie, Jefferson finished with 50 receptions for 802 yards and six touchdowns in 2021.
Prior to the 2021 season, the Rams brought in DeSean Jackson to be the team’s deep threat. Jackson did catch his share of deep passes - he averaged 27.6 yards per reception.
However, even when Jackson was still on the team, Jefferson also filled that role. Coming out of the gates in Week 1 against the Chicago Bears, he had a 67-yard touchdown reception. Later in the year against the Arizona Cardinals, Jefferson had a 52-yard touchdown reception.
Jefferson’s four receptions of 40 or more yards were the same as Bills wide receiver Stefon Diggs and tied for the ninth most in the NFL.
According to Sharp Football Analytics, among receivers with at least 75 plays, Jefferson ranked 15th in explosive play percentage at 13 percent. This was in the same group as guys like Mike Evans, Tee Higgins, and DeVonta Smith.
The 2020 second-round pick became the Rams’ primary deep threat, averaging a depth of target of 14 yards. Jefferson was also more than just a one-trick pony as he remained effective over the middle of the field.
Not having Jefferson will have an effect on some things that the Rams are able to do offensively. He’s a very versatile player that can do multiple things. The silver lining here is that the Rams do have a deep receiver room with guys that can play in different roles. Filling Jefferson’s role on Thursday night will likely be Ben Skowronek and TuTu Atwell.
Look for Rams wide receiver Ben Skowronek (6-3, 220, 11 career catches for 133 yards) to play extensively as third receiver behind Cooper Kupp and Allan Robinson with Van Jefferson (knee surgery) still not quite ready to play, per a league source— Aaron Wilson (@AaronWilson_NFL) September 7, 2022
As a seventh-round pick, Skowronek was thrown into the fire last season and forced to play when many other seventh-round picks would be developing. In fact, Skowronek was the only seventh-round pick to play more than 100 snaps on passing plays according to Pro Football Focus.
After Robert Woods went down with a torn ACL, Skowronek effectively became the Rams’ number three wide receiver. With as much as McVay opts to use 11 personnel, this meant that Skowronek basically became a starter.
It wasn’t all perfect for Skowronek. His drop in the end zone against the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship game could have been costly. One of Stafford’s interceptions in the Super Bowl went directly off of Skowronek’s hands. However, those were important reps to Skowronek’s development as he looks to take a step forward heading into year two.
He may not necessarily be a deep threat, but Skowronek should be able to play the possession wide receiver role in the intermediate areas of the field. Stafford tried to target Skowronek down the field last season, but it didn’t result in a lot of success.
Rams OC Liam Coen on WRs Ben Skowronek and Tutu Atwell:— Stu Jackson (@StuJRams) September 5, 2022
Skowronek "is giving you a little bit of that Robert Woods vibe" in terms of competing with and without ball in his hands. Got better at tracking ball during camp.
Atwell can play a few different positions for team.
It’s very likely that Skowronek gets the majority of the snaps as the Rams third wide receiver on Thursday night. However, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Atwell in specific situations or even Brandon Powell given his history with Stafford.
For the Rams to replicate Jefferson’s down the field threat, Atwell is the best option here as he offers legitimate stretch the field ability. He’s also very dangerous after the catch.
Preseason stats and training camp highlights should be taken with a grain of salt. Still, in the 2021 preseason, Atwell’s 2.9 yards after the catch per reception ranked ninth. This training camp, Stafford and Atwell also looked to have a solid connection down the field.
Stafford absolutely LAUNCHES it to @tutuatwell! pic.twitter.com/D9OXRPma0p— Los Angeles Rams (@RamsNFL) August 4, 2022
This was something that Atwell did well at Louisville. In 2019, Atwell had six 50+ yard receptions which ranked third in the nation behind only Ja’marr Chase and Tamorrion Terry. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Atwell in a similar role that Jackson had in the early parts of last season.
The main takeaway here is that this won’t be a “Skowronek is wide receiver three” and “Atwell is wide receiver four” situation. As The Athletic’s Jourdan Rodrigue details, this will be very much a WR3a and WR3b, wide receiver by committee approach.
“Since the start of his absence, the Rams have approached the position “by committee”, meaning a couple of different receivers took over Jefferson’s snap allotment in training camp and in joint practices against the Bengals in late August. Second-year receivers Ben Skowronek and Tutu Atwell have both emerged as options in this regard.”
The Rams will be without Van Jefferson on Thursday night against the Bills. However, McVay’s ability to adjust to his personnel has been tested over the last year especially and the offense has still found success.
Jefferson will be missed, but it will be up to Skowronek and Atwell to take his place.