For Van Jefferson to enjoy a breakout of epic proportions in year four, he will have to become one of the most unique receivers in NFL history. And though he is entering his fourth year in the league, Jefferson will have to do so at age 27 so it is a fair question to ask whether or not the 2024 free agent is playing for his career going into next season.
But it’s not for lack of trying.
Jefferson, who said this week that he’s feeling back to 100% after undergoing two operations on his knee in 2022, has also been putting in extra time with quarterback Matthew Stafford this offseason. The two never played together last season because of separate injuries and so Jefferson would like to file away his 2022 campaign (24 catches on 44 targets, 369 yards, three touchdowns over 11 games) under: “Injured and playing with second, third, and fourth-string quarterbacks”.
However, it is not as though Van Jefferson had an impeccable career trajectory prior to 2022 and for him to become the breakout star who the L.A. Rams will need next to Cooper Kupp next season, he will have to overcome odds that so far receivers like him have ever surmounted following three campaigns like his own to begin his career.
#Rams’ WR Van Jefferson said he's been working with QB Matthew Stafford this offseason.— Tanner Phifer (@TannerPhiferNFL) May 6, 2023
The two didn’t play together in 2022 as Jefferson was hurt until week 7 and while Stafford played only 38 offensive snaps after Week 9 while dealing with concussion and neck issues. pic.twitter.com/yehfugILpG
I went back to 2011 and sorted every first and second round receiver who had less than 100 catches through their first three seasons, resulting in 46 names found. Notably, the player with the most yards among them is Van Jefferson, who has a career total of 93 catches and 1,391 yards over 44 games.
The five names behind him are James Washington, Justin Blackmon, Corey Davis, Hakeem Nicks, and Justin Hunter.
However, Blackmon, Davis, and Nicks were all victims of injury and missed games, as they played in 20, 27, and 15 games, respectively through their first three seasons. More apt comparisons for production per game would be Washington (90 catches for 1,344 yards and nine touchdowns through 45 games), Phillip Dorsett (63/947/3 over 41 games), and Cordarrelle Patterson (80/863/5 over 48 games).
Dorsett was let go by the Indianapolis Colts after two seasons, spent three years with the Patriots, and last year had 20 catches for 257 yards on the Texans. He is now competing for a job on the Raiders. Washington had a very similar career arc to Jefferson, posting 44 catches for 735 yards in year two with the Pittsburgh Steelers, followed by two disappointing seasons, and he had zero catches over two games last season with the Dallas Cowboys; Washington is essentially the same age as Jefferson.
Patterson never developed as a receiver on the Vikings and has since reinvented himself as a running back on the Atlanta Falcons. That is not a likely career path for Jefferson, or anybody really.
This is not to imply that Jefferson’s career is hitting its end point, only that there have not been many comparisons in NFL history that resulted in long-term starting options at receiver. The best and most optimistic examples:
Golden Tate had a mediocre three-year start with the Seattle Seahawks in the early 2010s and then broke out, coincidentally, when playing with Matthew Stafford on the Lions beginning in 2014. Tate had 101 catches for 1,297 yards through three seasons in the NFL, similar to Jefferson.
Michael Crabtree had an underwhelming start to his career after being a top-10 draft pick of the 49ers in 2009, but broke out for 85 catches and 1,105 yards in year four.
And you could perhaps use Kenny Britt as an example too, as he didn’t enjoy his best career seasons until he joined the Rams in 2014 after five years on the Tennessee Titans. Britt broke out for 1,002 yards in 2016, his eighth year in the NFL. But Britt did post two 700-yard seasons to open his career prior to missing most of his third campaign and needing to reinvent himself for a comeback, so it’s not quite a 1:1 comparison.
Unfortunately, the Rams receiver who Jefferson is hoping to avoid a similar arc to would be former second round pick Brian Quick. It seemed Quick may be on the right path with 375 yards over seven games in his third year, but when he returned from injury the next year he was never back on track.
I think it’s a lot easier to follow the NFL when instead of playing favorites, you play the odds. There is a long list of first and second round receivers who didn’t pan out and a short list of receivers who have had career starts like Jefferson who then “figured it out” in year four. Perhaps the extra work with Stafford in the offseason will pay off and there’s surely little standing in between him and being next to Cooper Kupp next season. The opportunity is there, as it was in the 2021 playoffs when L.A. went through a myriad of injuries at the position and called on Jefferson to step up.
The worry there is that despite going up to 90-100% snaps in the playoffs, Jefferson had eight catches for 61 yards in the last three postseason games.
The Rams are going to need much more than that from Van Jefferson with his next opportunity.