2020 Rams Rookie Expected To Make The Biggest Jump In 2021
The Rams 2020 rookie class was feast or famine last season. On one hand, Cam Akers and Jordan Fuller were in heavy rotation and were serious contributors to the team’s success. On the other hand, Terrell Lewis and Terrell Burgess missed most of the season due to injuries and Brycen Hopkins was active for only five weeks, as he was buried in the depth chart behind three other tight ends.
But, with many decisions to be made in free agency, 2021 will look very different for these sophomores. Akers, Hopkins, and Fuller will undoubtedly get more playing time if Malcolm Brown, Gerald Everett, and John Johnson are lost to the open market. Also with impending changes to the offensive line afoot, Tremayne Anchrum will play more snaps. Certainly, more than his 2020 total of three offensive snaps.
Of course, injuries are difficult to predict, but both Terrell Lewis and Burgess are expected to contribute more next season.
So all around, the Rams sophomore class looks to make a jump in 2021. But the second-year player that is expected to make the biggest jump from last season is Van Jefferson. Similar to his other teammates in his cohort, Jefferson will benefit from the possible departure of Josh Reynolds. The two receivers shared similar duties in 2020. Their biggest role was to replace Brandin Cooks’ explosive playmaking ability. Reynolds and Jefferson were the only two pass catchers to have an average depth of target of over 10 yards. That is to say, they comprised the team’s deep threat. The next highest ADOT was Tyler Higbee with 7.7 yards and the team averaged 6.2 yards, 30th in the league.
Reynolds was on the field for 802 snaps and was targeted 81 times. If Reynolds leaves, the Rams will need Jefferson to fill that role and more. Given how similar they were used, it is as if Jefferson served as Reynolds’ understudy, but will now get to move into the spotlight. His readiness to move into the WR3 spot is facing scrutiny after a lackluster rookie season.
But, the 2021 Rams offense is going to look a lot different than 2020 with the addition of Matthew Stafford. Not only is Stafford an upgrade at QB, but he also plays the position differently than Jared Goff and those differences will directly benefit Jefferson.
One of the biggest differences is how Stafford targets receivers. Goff’s distribution is top-heavy with Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp getting targeted most frequently. Stafford has often spread his targets around more evenly. While there is usually one clear top target, the next few wide receivers are bunched together with a similar amount of targets.
Now, this doesn’t mean that Stafford is just a nice guy, trying to get everyone involved. But what it does mean is that Stafford has superb vision and awareness of the field. It also points to his ability to extend plays. How this helps Jefferson is it capitalizes on his top skillset, which is route running. When you run accurate and consistent routes, the QB knows where you’ll be on the field and when you’ll be there. This takes a lot of guesswork out of quarterbacking. So whether it’s a timing route, on a bootleg, or a busted play, Stafford will know he can rely on Jefferson.
Stafford has a track record of cashing in on receivers that can’t dominate with speed or size, but have exceptional hands and technical skills. Golden Tate is a good example. Tate put up career numbers while playing with Stafford. Jefferson may not hit as high of a ceiling as Tate, but playing with Stafford will certainly help him take a big jump forward in 2021. Jefferson’s big leap in 2021 will be because Stafford can throw deep. In 2020, the Rams weren’t throwing deep. Goff averaged 6.2 intended air yards per passing attempt. He was ranked 33rd. Stafford, on the other hand, was ranked fifth with 8.7. Not only that, but Goff’s passer rating when throwing to Jefferson was 66.6%, yet Jefferson only dropped one pass. Meaning, when Goff was trying to throw deep he was off target.
It’s no secret that Stafford has a better arm than Goff, but he is also more accurate throwing deep, better under pressure, and better throwing on the run. If Jefferson continues to be the team’s preferred option down the field, then he is going to pick up big yardage.
Because of a lack of cap space and limited draft capital, all rookies on the Rams roster are under a significant amount of pressure to perform at a high level right away. So the scrutiny that Jefferson is under is exaggerated by the team’s circumstances. In reality, Jefferson played up to the level of other WR4s in a Sean McVay offense. Before moving into the WR3 spot, Josh Reynolds averaged 20.3 receptions and 277 yards. Jefferson caught 19 for 220 yards, producing that with far fewer reps than Reynolds.
Playing with Stafford and getting significantly more snaps, Jefferson will make a huge jump from 2020 to 2021. Last season, he showed in flashes that he can make a big impact. Next season, he will be set up to show that he can do it consistently.