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Is TuTu Atwell the key to opening the Rams vertical passing game?

Can TuTu Atwell help open up the Rams vertical passing game in 2023?

NFL: Las Vegas Raiders at Los Angeles Rams Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

It’s a tale as old as time. With the 57th overall pick of the 2021 NFL Draft, the Los Angeles Rams selected wide receiver TuTu Atwell out of Louisville. It was controversial at the time as general manager Les Snead passed on center Creed Humphrey. Humphrey has gone on to be an all-pro center while Atwell has left a lot to be desired.

However, that’s not why I’m here. Nobody wants to be the crazy ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend that simply can’t or won’t move on from the relationship. Over two years later, the time has come to put the past behind us and accept what we do have for better or worse.

Fans can continue to dwell on the Rams passing on Humphrey for Atwell all day or whether or not he was even the correct wide receiver to be taken in that spot. It’s worth noting that out of the eight wide receivers selected between picks 50 and 100 in the 2021 NFL Draft, Atwell ranks fifth in career receiving yards.

He currently ranks ahead of the wide receiver taken right before him in D’Wayne Eskridge who was drafted by the Seattle Seahawks. Atwell is also ahead of Amari Rodgers and Anthony Schwartz. Additionally, the Rams wide receiver trails Dyami Brown by only 10 yards.

Out of the wide receivers that have produced more than Atwell, Terrace Marshall had just 138 yards as a rookie. Josh Palmer currently has 1,122 career receiving yards, but he also finished with just over 300 yards in his rookie season with 353.

Atwell may never be embraced by the fanbase due to the baggage that he carries with his draft position. That’s not something that’s necessarily his fault or in his control.

After spending most of his rookie season injured, Atwell was able to finally show what he was capable of in 2022. As Sean McVay said prior to last season,

“When you look at it, Tutu Atwell’s a guy that got injured. I think he’s looked really good this offseason program up to this point. I still believe Tutu can be that guy. He had the shoulder injury. He’s looked really good. He’s done a great job of responding the right way.”

Cooper Kupp added that Atwell is a “special player” who “can do some pretty incredible things.”

The fanbase was finally able to see why the Rams drafted Atwell last season as well as what the potential plan is for him in the offense. In Week 5 against the Dallas Cowboys, Atwell beat Trevon Diggs down the field for a 54-yard reception, setting up a field goal for the offense. Later on in the year, he caught his first touchdown, beating Chris Harris Jr. of the New Orleans Saints 62-yards down the left sideline.

When utilized, Atwell showed that maybe he wasn’t a bust, but rather someone the coaching staff simply wasn’t using. Following the season, McVay said,

“(He) probably should have gotten more opportunities earlier in the season, and that’s something I won’t run away from, because all this guy has done is answer the bell when he’s had his chances.”

The Rams head coach is exactly right. When Atwell was given chances last year, all he did was answer the bell. Among players with at least 35 targets, Atwell’s 17.9 yards led the NFL in average depth of target (aDOT). His 16.6 yards per reception also ranked inside the top-10 at number eight.

On just passes of 20 yards or more, Atwell ranked second with 58 yards per reception and his aDOT of 38 yards was tied for third. If last year showed anything, it’s that the Rams second-round pick has the ability to be one of the more dangerous deep threats in the NFL. His speed is something that defenses always have to account for when he’s on the field.

With that said, he’s also more than just a deep threat or a gadget player. When people look at TuTu Atwell, they see Tavon Austin 2.0. However, Atwell is much better and more polished as a wide receiver. His route-running alone puts him miles ahead of what Austin was coming out of Louisville. There’s a reason why Austin was moved to running back and why in three of Austin’s five seasons with the Rams, he had just as many if not more rushing attempts than receptions.

Austin was a much better a punt returner, but that was never part of Atwell’s game. In college, he had four career punt returns. However, because Austin was a punt returner, Atwell has continued to get put into that box. These are two players with the same size, but they are not at all the same player.

Last season, Atwell finished with 18 catches for 298 yards and a touchdown. That’s not necessarily a stat line that’s going to catch a lot of attention or give a lot of reason for optimism. However, what we can do is understand that 2022 was Atwell’s true first year of game experience and a majority of his snaps came with Bryce Perkins, John Wolford, and Baker Mayfield at quarterback.

Despite the quarterback carousel, Atwell was still able to find production. From Week 13 to Week 18, Atwell was the second-most productive wide receiver on the Rams. During these weeks, his 14 receptions for 159 yards trailed only Van Jefferson who finished with 15 receptions for 272 yards.

If you consider last season Atwell’s rookie year, he’s not far off from where other Rams rookie wide receivers have finished. As a rookie, Jefferson finished with 19 receptions for 220 yards, Josh Reynolds had 11 receptions for 104 yards, and Ben Skowronek hauled in 11 receptions for 133 yards. The only rookie receiver to find production in their first season under McVay is Cooper Kupp. However, Kupp is the exception not the rule.

Of course Reynolds and Skowronek were both day three picks and Atwell should be out-producing them as a second-round pick. Still, Atwell did out-produce Jefferson as a rookie. The next season Jefferson finished with 802 yards.

Now, that isn’t to say that Atwell is going to finish with 800 yards this season. It’s only to say that young wide receivers in the McVay offense typically take a jump in their second year of playing in the system.

It’s fair to expect and want more tangible production out of Atwell. As mentioned, 18 receptions for 298 yards isn’t going to raise any eyebrows, nor should it. However, the tape adds context to what was a promising second year and first with game experience. With the quarterback situation and injuries to the offensive line, there were a lot of missed opportunities. If a wide receiver is asked to run a lot of deep routes, those take time to develop. That’s not time that the offense was granted very often last season.

Additionally, Atwell’s 298 yards don’t include the 81 yards in defensive pass interference penalties that he was awarded. As a hypothetical, let’s say those 81 yards count towards Atwell’s season totals and then Wolford and Mayfield are able to connect with him on just two big plays that were missed. That would have put Atwell’s final numbers closer to 500 yards which is a number that obviously looks a lot better on the stat sheet.

As Don Meredith once said, “If ifs and buts were candy and nuts, we’d all have a merry Christmas.” However, it’s worth showing some of the missed opportunities, getting to the ‘why’ of those missed opportunities, and showing the improvement in Atwell’s game.

Heading into next season, it would be great to see Atwell utilized as a deep threat more, but also in the intermediate areas of the field and in some of the Brandon Powell gadget plays.

Again, this isn’t to say that Atwell is this hidden star that the Rams and McVay simply need to unleash. This is only to say that he does more than what he’s given credit for and has earned more opportunity.

With the current depth behind Kupp and Jefferson, that opportunity for someone like Atwell is available.