Following a season in which Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Van Jefferson hauled in 50 receptions for 800 yards, 2022 did not go as planned. Jefferson started the season hurt and didn’t get into a rhythm until late in the year.
After signing Allen Robinson as a free agent just last offseason to be a complimentary wide receiver to Cooper Kupp, the Rams traded him to the Pittsburgh Steelers prior to the NFL Draft. Now, the WR2 responsibilities will be passed down to Jefferson for the first time in his career. Entering a contract year, is that a role that he is capable of filling in the Rams offense?
Between now and the Rams’ first preseason game, I’m going to preview approximately 45 players on the roster. The goal here will be to highlight players looking to take that next step in 2023 as well as players who will serve as key depth on the roster. I may expand into the occasional star or roster-bubble player, but for the most part we’ll be looking at the players who will truly make or break the Rams season.
Today, we’re looking at Van Jefferson.
2022 Season in Review
As mentioned, the 2022 season didn’t necessarily go as planned for Jefferson. He had a breakout season in 2021, recording one of the quietest 800 yard seasons in recent memory. Matthew Stafford’s first touchdown pass as a Ram went to Jefferson in Week 1 against the Chicago Bears. His performance against the Arizona Cardinals on Monday Night Football is also a memorable one.
However, the Rams wide receiver started the season in 2022, spending the first six weeks inactive or on injured reserve. When he did return, he didn’t have a reception in his first two games. His first game with more than 50 yards didn’t come until Week 17. It wasn’t all bad for Jefferson as he did catch the game-winning touchdown against the Las Vegas Raiders.
Baker Mayfield got to Los Angeles on Tuesday night.— TJ Eckert (@TJEckertKTUL) December 9, 2022
He just led the Rams on a 98 yard game-winning drive to beat the Raiders.
48 hours after joining the team.
Jefferson finished with 24 receptions for 369 yards. As the primary target outside of Kupp, the Rams need the former Florida Gator to step up in a big way in year four.
The Good/Best Case Scenario
Since joining the Rams in 2020, Jefferson has been one of the best deep threats in the NFL. In 2021, he had a 63.8 percent success rate on “nine” routes which are vertical routes on your typical route tree. His 81.5 success rate on deep posts and 69.6 percent success rate on deep corners were also above average.
According to Pro Football Focus, on passes of 20 yards or more in 2021, Jefferson’s 34.6 yards in average depth of target (aDOT) ranked third behind only Tyreek Hill and Zay Jones. On all passes, he ranked fourth in aDOT at 14 yards behind Courtland Sutton, Tyler Lockett, and DeVonta Smith.
The best case scenario for Jefferson will be for him to take that next step in his development and becomes the WR2 that the Rams need him to be.
The Bad/Worst Case Scenario
Through three years, Jefferson hasn’t shown that he can be a second wide receiver in an offense. As the number one wide receiver in the offense from Weeks 11-18, Jefferson didn’t have any games with more than three receptions and only two games with more than 50 yards. Those two games with more than 50 yards came in Weeks 17 and 18.
Jefferson finished the year with 24 receptions on 44 targets. His 54.1 reception percentage was the seventh-lowest in the NFL. You can put some blame on the quarterback, but it’s worth noting that he also had the fourth-lowest reception percentage in 2021.
When Beckham Jr. went down in the Super Bowl with a torn ACL, Jefferson became the number two wide receiver. He had four receptions on eight targets and had Kupp not taken over the fourth quarter, it’s possible that the Rams lose.
A worst case scenario for Jefferson is that he doesn’t take the next step in his development, leading to Kupp being a one-man show at wide receiver.
Biggest Question: Can Van Jefferson be the WR2 next to Cooper Kupp?
Jefferson was drafted with the 57th overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. As a player with that draft capital, you would expect them to eventually develop into a top wide receiver or WR2 role at the very least. That hasn’t necessarily come to fruition yet.
As a rookie, Jefferson finished behind Josh Reynolds in receiving yards. Between Robert Woods and Odell Beckham Jr. in 2021, both of those players combined numbers were higher than Jefferson’s. The Rams then went out to sign Allen Robinson last offseason in free agency. Did the Rams see an opportunity with Robinson or did they not trust Jefferson as a primary target?
Jefferson was the WR2 in the Super Bowl after Odell Beckham Jr. went down with an injury and he had just four receptions for 23 yards on eight targets. One of Stafford’s interceptions came while targeting Jefferson.
This will be a big year for Jefferson in the Rams offense as he enters a contract year. Following his 2021 season, Yahoo Sports’ Matt Harmon, who created Reception Perception in order to chart wide receivers, had this to say about Jefferson,
“Jefferson posted blistering success rates on the post, nine, corner and out routes. He has build-up speed when working down the field and has enough nuance to stack defenders...Overall, Jefferson’s success rate vs. man coverage is a relatively encouraging number (69.1%) if we’re considering him a complementary outside receiver. His success rate vs. zone and press are a bit lower than we’d like if we’re projecting him as a reliable, down-in-down-out player who can command a high target share.”
Harmon lays out some of the concerns with Jefferson. He needs to be able to take the next step in his development as a former second round pick. It’s worth noting that his 69.1 percent success rate against man was in the 53rd percentile while his 74.6 percent success rate against zone was just in the 22nd percentile.
It’s fair to have concerns about Jefferson moving into a larger role. He needs to be a player that Stafford can rely on outside of Kupp.
Jefferson will be the WR2 heading into camp and it would be shocking if anybody were to pass him on the depth chart. He likely doesn’t have a roster battle this summer.
2023 Outlook and What to Expect
Jefferson needs to show that he can be more than a third wide receiver in an offense. If the fourth-year wide receiver can show that he can be a threat outside of Kupp while finishing with 75 receptions for 900-1200 yards, that should be considered a successful season.
The 2022 season will be a big one for Jefferson as he enters a contract year. At this point, it’s uncertain if the Rams would sign him to an extension. If I had to guess, the answer right now is probably not. However, if Jefferson can show that he is able to be the second option behind Kupp, there is a possibility that they would bring him back.
It’s a classical “prove-it” year with Jefferson. As the official WR2 in the offense, he’ll need to show that he’s ready for the increased role.