You’ve heard the cliché a zillion times: “the NFL is a copycat league”.
We discuss and debate every offseason how each franchise can improve, and for the most part teams are usually looking for a lot of the same traits. Fans of the Los Angeles Rams know this well, as for the better part of the last decade Sean McVay’s coaching staff has been picked apart year after year in hopes of finding the “next” version of the young head coach. Matt LaFleur, Zac Taylor, Brandon Staley, and Kevin O’Connell are all branches off the McVay coaching tree.
But McVay isn’t the only Rams star that teams across the NFL have been trying to emulate. The Buffalo Bills drafted Ed Oliver with a top-10 draft selection in 2019 in hopes of finding “the next Aaron Donald”. Pittsburgh defensive lineman Calijah Kancey earned that moniker in this year’s NFL Draft before he was picked 19th overall by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers—because of his shorter stature and based on the uniform he wore in college.
Bucs got a good one. The guy may be the next Aaron Donald.— Christopher Matich (@PghMatich) June 14, 2023
The Miami Dolphins are the “next” team that is embracing the “f them picks” roster building approach and have used premium draft capital to acquire veterans such as Tyreek Hill, Bradley Chubb, and Jalen Ramsey—though the jury is still out on whether this model will reward them with a Super Bowl victory as it did for Los Angeles.
McVay, Donald, and “f them picks” all have a common thread, which is the fact they found success despite running counter to conventional thought. McVay was by far the youngest head coach in NFL at the time of his hire in 2017. Donald was thought of as severely undersized coming into the draft and fell all the way to the Rams at pick #13 (the team’s second choice in that draft), though most talent evaluators failed to appreciate his rare combination of strength and speed. Les Snead and McVay also deserve credit for identifying and leveraging inefficiencies in the picks for veteran player trade market as they built a star-studded roster.
Trade compensation for Ramsey seems about right given how much his contract is/will be with #Dolphins. Huge move for Miami obviously.— Chris Trapasso (@ChrisTrapasso) March 12, 2023
Unless Dolphins trade back, they'll have four draft picks for second-straight year. They've officially followed the Rams f them picks philosophy.
Perhaps the next Rams player that the league will try to copy will come from an unlikely candidate: WR Tutu Atwell.
Atwell was not particularly well regarded as a draft prospect due to his small stature (5-9, 165 lbs.), and it was a mild surprise that LA selected him as early as the second round. His rookie season was cut short due to injury before it really began. In year two he finally showed flashes as a receiver and demonstrated that his speed translates to the professional game.
The Los Angeles depth chart at wide receiver is still a significant mystery, though it wouldn’t be impossible for Atwell to usurp Van Jefferson as the secondary pass catcher behind Cooper Kupp. At worst he projects as the third option with a sizeable lead over the other candidates—Ben Skowronek, Puka Nacua, Tyler Johnson, and Demarcus Robinson.
TUTU.— FOX Sports: NFL (@NFLonFOX) October 9, 2022
Atwell beats Trevon Diggs deep for a gain of 54
A healthy Matthew Stafford playing behind an offensive line that provides him with time to progress downfield will pay significant dividends for Atwell. The upgrade in quarterback play over Baker Mayfield and John Wolford is also notable, as Atwell managed 18 receptions for 298 yards and a touchdown while mostly playing with the reserve signal callers last season.
Receivers are getting smaller, which is evidenced by this past draft class. While Atwell will never be the model at the position, a breakout year from the young speedster could make each team feel like they need an offensive weapon with his skillset. Atwell isn’t one of a kind, though he has a path to significant production potential in 2023—and that’s not something the Houston Texans’ Tank Dell or Pittsburgh Steelers’ Calvin Austin can likely claim at this point.
A big year from Atwell could make 5-9, 165 lbs. receivers commonplace in the NFL— and “the next Tutu Atwell” could become as oft-referred to as “the next Sean McVay” or “the next Aaron Donald”.