Tutu Atwell and the modern day “gadget” player

Bill Mount

Inspecting the Gadget Tavon Austin is 185 pounds. Sean McVay as a college WR at Miami of Ohio was 5’10” and 187 pounds. The Rams just drafted a WR in the 2nd round who weighs 30 pounds less than both Tavon and their diminutive head coach. Atwell is 40 pounds […]


Inspecting the Gadget

Tavon Austin is 185 pounds. Sean McVay as a college WR at Miami of Ohio was 5’10” and 187 pounds. The Rams just drafted a WR in the 2nd round who weighs 30 pounds less than both Tavon and their diminutive head coach. Atwell is 40 pounds lighter than Julian Edelman. This is a joke, right? A bad dream? What was the thought process inside of Snead’s mind? Creed Humphrey, 6’5” and 320 pounds. Nope, too big, don’t want him. Spencer Brown 6’9” tall. Way too big. Joseph Ossai, 6’4” and 253 pounds. Over 100 pounds too heavy. Tutu Atwell, 5’9” and 155 pounds. Perfect, that’s the guy we want! Let’s draft him. Have the Rams gone cuckoo? Isn’t a WR this small just a “gadget” player, a seldom used, niche luxury?

Surprisingly, the Atwell pick might be perfectly logical. What does the word “gadget” mean specifically applied to McVay’s offensive scheme? The connotations behind words in the NFL can change over time. Haven’t you ever wondered why if the “quarterback” lines up in front of the “halfback” and the “fullback” seemingly should mean the player lined up the deepest in the backfield, how did it come to be that the FB became a blocker who lines up in front of the halfback? Before the forward pass was considered to be legal and fair play, the word “quarterback” carried entirely different connotations than it does today. The shotgun formation was considered a niche, gimmicky thing at one point in pro football. For some NFL teams today, shotgun would probably be considered the normal, base formation for the offense. A “nickel DB” was once viewed as a backup player who only played part of the time. Today, drafting a nickel CB in the 2nd round would be a perfectly valid use of such an early pick. Meanwhile, the fullback position, which once was worth drafting in the 2nd round (if the team decided not to draft a punter in the 2nd round), has become relegated to being a late round or UDFA type position.

In the middle of last season, Dan Pizzuta for Sharp Football Analysis wrote an article discussing how the Rams and the Niners (who have an offense that is a cousin to McVay’s system) use jet sweeps and motion screen passes far more than other NFL teams. The Rams ran 15% of all jet sweep plays in the NFL (if all 32 teams ran the play at equal rates, the percentage for each club should be about 3%) and gained 8.4 yards per carry on those jet sweeps. He cited a table created by ESPN stats, tweeted out by Seth Walder, which ranked all 32 teams in terms of how frequently they used motion at the snap. The Falcons were at the bottom, with only 3% of their plays in this category. The Bears were in the middle in 17th place, at 11%. The top 3 teams in the NFL were the Ravens at 38%, the Rams in second place at 30% and the Niners in 3rd place at 22.6%. So, the Rams used motion at a rate ten times as high as the Falcons and nearly 3 times the rate of the Bears.

In 2018, the Rams were at the vanguard of a jet sweep revolution in the NFL. Per PFF, there was a 78% jump in the number of jet sweeps run in the NFL in 2018 compared to 2017. The Rams ran twice as many jet sweeps in 2018 as the second place team. The Rams ran 15.5% of the league’s jet sweeps in 2018, the same disproportionately high rate as in 2020. The league average was 6.1 ypc on jet sweeps, but Robert Woods averaged 8.1 ypc on those plays, despite Woods not being a speedy WR.

All of the draft profiles on Tutu Atwell question whether he can become more than just a gadget WR in the NFL. Those concerns are legitimate, but something that is a gadget play for a team like the Falcons and the Bears isn’t necessarily a gadget play for the Rams. Jet sweeps, bubble and tunnel screens, drag routes, if you do those types of things frequently enough, at what point do they stop being gadgets and instead become part of the foundational backbone of a team’s offense? The rushing stats for Robert Woods the last 3 seasons:

2018: 19 for 157 (8.3 ypc)

2019: 17 for 115 (6.8 ypc)

2020: 24 for 155 (6.5 ypc)

Combined: 60 for 427 (7.1 yards per carry)

Brandin Cooks had 10 rushing attempts for 68 yards in 2018 (6.8 ypc). He had zero rushing attempts for the Texans last season. If I’m reading the 2020 league stats correctly, Robert Woods had the most rushing yards by a WR who didn’t line up as a RB. I’m not counting players like Curtis Samuel of the Panthers, who sometimes plays tailback and gets rushing yards like a traditional RB.

It is conceivable that the only reason McVay hasn’t called even more jet sweeps is because he hasn’t had the right type of WR to use for that role. Hence Atwell. The Rams could shift carries away from Woods and give them to Atwell, freeing up Woods to be used in other ways. Maybe the Rams will use 4 wide (even 5 wide?) formations and have DJax, Woods, Kupp and Atwell all on the field at the same time.

Here is a link to the article by Pizzuta about the Rams. If you watch the video clip on the 2nd play, notice how the ghost motion by Woods faking a jet sweep influences the linebackers. The middle linebacker takes a step to the middle of the field. This helps Whitworth the LT get a better angle to block him on a combo block. The RB Henderson follows Cooper Kupp around the edge and goes down the sideline. Whitworth isn’t able to finish off the LB, who eventually makes the tackle, but not before a nice gain and a first down. If Whit had sustained his block better, I wonder if this play results in a TD. The other LB also adjusts, which should have helped Austin Blythe, but Blythe doesn’t make a very effective block. Notice too that if Atwell had been the WR running the ghost motion, that means Robert Woods instead of Kupp could have been the lead blocker for the RB on this play, which might help make the play more effective.

On the first clip, an actual jet sweep, GE the TE doesn’t make the greatest block, but his guy gets caught looking backwards (maybe for an audible?) and is late to recognize Woods coming his way. The safety (number 39, Eddie Jackson) has no clue that Woods has the ball. He’s still looking into the backfield at the RB as the WR turns the corner. Edwards pulls around from the LG spot, but he’s not quite fast enough as a runner to seal off the LB and prevent backside pursuit. If Kupp the WR blocking downfield, GE and Edwards were just a hair better on their blocks, and you had speedy Atwell running this play instead of the slower Woods, the WR would be one on one in open field against the last safety and it is possibly a long TD run. In the blink of an eye, that’s how quickly a play like this can break wide open. You can manufacture a huge play without the QB or OL really doing much of anything.

What some people call a “gimmick” is part of the glue that binds together the run portion of the Rams playbook with the passing plays. An effect “gadget” game can help the Rams OL block better on both runs and passes. It can hold 2nd level defenders a split second longer, cause them to step in the wrong direction, slow down pass rushers by forcing them to look for screens and create confusion with misdirection, disguising whether it is a run or a pass.

While I don’t believe it is possible to hide a terrible offensive line with smoke and mirrors, I do think that an effective “gadget” game can make the OL more effective. One thing that helped Todd Gurley get so many yards in 2018 was how the jet sweeps caused LBs, safeties and the backside edge defenders to be out of position, helping to create gaps for the RB to run through. It wasn’t 100% just the OL blocking up front. Tutu Atwell has the potential to help the Rams in an important aspect of McVay’s playbook.

The word “gadget” typically has negative connotations in football, but if it helps the team win games (especially the Super Bowl), eventually the other teams in the NFL will begin to try to copy teams like the Rams, Niners and Ravens and try to find their own “gadget guy”. How many teams were looking for “the next Wes Welker” before the Patriots turned Welker into a big slot weapon? Other teams looked at Welker and saw him as a backup, a special teams player, someone who wasn’t very valuable. He was under 5’9” tall and ran 4.65 sec in the 40. The measurements didn’t scream NFL superstar. It took a marriage of scheme and talent for Welker and the Pats to forever change the way the NFL thought about short and “quicker than fast” slot WRs.

Over the Moon

In Sports Illustrated’s draft profile on Atwell, they compare him to Darnell Mooney, who plays for the Bears. Last season, Mooney jumped ahead of the much more heralded high draft pick, Anthony Miller, on the depth chart and had a surprisingly impactful rookie season.

Miller was drafted in the 2nd round of the 2018 draft (pick 51 overall) out of Memphis. Many experts loved Miller as a WR prospect. Matt Miller for Bleacher Report compared him to Brandin Cooks. A SB Nation draft profile said he was a 1st round talent. Lance Zierlein gave him a 6.20 draft grade and a 3rd round projection. All the draft evaluations were very similar. They praised Miller’s competitiveness and work ethic. He was a former walk-on and the coaches said he was a hard worker. Experts were concerned about dropped passes and a foot injury. At his pro day, Miller had a 6.65 sec 3 cone (substantially better than Atwell, even though Miller was nearly 50 pounds heavier), had a 39” vert jump (half a foot better than Atwell) and ran 4.48 sec in the 40. He was 5’11” tall and 201 pounds.

Miller has struggled his first 3 years in the NFL. One of the plays cited by the press as being emblematic of his problems happened against the Rams in 2019. Miller doesn’t run the route precisely and when Trubisky throws the pass, the ball bounces off of Miller’s hands, resulting in an INT for Troy Hill. A couple of plays later, Jared Goff throws a deep pass to Cooper Kupp for a 50 yard gain, setting up a Todd Gurley TD plunge from the one yard line. The Rams go up 10-0 and eventually win the game 17-7.

Both Matt Nagy and Mike Furrey (the WR coach, who is a former Rams player) have been openly critical of Miller’s work ethic and professionalism. The Bears coaches said that when Miller was a rookie, they would hold their breath, just hoping that Miller would go to the right place in his route. They had concerns with his big ego, how he lacked attention to detail in his route running, struggled to grasp the playbook and didn’t prepare properly.

Furrey said, “[Miller] was allowed to get away with a lot of stuff [in college] and his statistics were phenomenal, but that stuff just doesn’t work in the pros.” Explaining why Miller hadn’t gotten more playing time, Furrey said, “The reason why [he’s not on the field] is because you can’t trust him.” The other Bears WRs once jokingly voted Miller the WR most likely to be late to practice.

Despite the coaches telling the media that Miller had improved since his rookie year and turned over a new leaf, things didn’t improve in either of his 2nd or 3rd seasons. Recently, the Bears put Miller on the trading block, but there doesn’t seem to be much interest in him from other teams. So much for Miller being the next Brandin Cooks. All of the draft profiles praising Miller for his work ethic appear to have been off.

Last season, some of Miller’s snaps got shifted to a 5th round rookie named Darnell Mooney. Miller had 485 receiving yards last year. Mooney had 61 catches for 631 yards and 4 TDs, making 9 starts and playing 73% of the team’s snaps (compared to 55% for Miller.) Mooney was the 2nd leading receiver on the team behind Allen Robinson and had a 68.7 PFF grade.

In terms of his yardage and PFF grade, Darnell Mooney was almost exactly the same as Josh Reynolds for the Rams. Meanwhile, Miller had a 58.5 PFF grade. If Reynolds is an average to below average NFL WR (he ranked 83rd out of 127 last year), it shows how much of a disappointment Miller has been for the Bears that he can’t even match that mediocre level of performance. Miller is “just a guy”, not the 1st or 2nd round game breaking talent he was considered to be in the draft.

Mooney was 5’10” tall, 176 pounds, with longer arms and bigger hands compared to Atwell. Mooney ran 4.38 sec in the 40 at the Combine. Whether this is as fast as Atwell depends on which time you believe, because I’ve seen reports for Atwell’s 40 time at his pro day be anywhere from 4.27 or 4.32 sec to 4.39, 4.42 or 4.44 seconds (40 times in general can be elusive to pin down. Kevin Curtis supposedly had a hand held time at the Combine of 4.21 seconds, but per other sources his time was 4.46 seconds, which is a huge difference. Other sources list the time as being 4.35 seconds. Curtis was fast, but exactly how fast isn’t easy to definitively say.) Mooney’s hands were shaky in college. Lance Zierlein gave Mooney a 5.80 draft grade and a 7th round to UDFA projection. If Mooney and Atwell were in the same draft, I’d probably take Atwell, but I think SI’s comparison is fair, the 2 WRs are similar.

I don’t know how you want to spin this for the Rams. On one hand, Mooney beat out Miller, a 2nd round pick, so if Atwell is better than Mooney, maybe he could beat out Van Jefferson for playing time, and outperform what Josh Reynolds gave the Rams in 2020. If Atwell did that and had let’s say 700 receiving yards as a rookie, would you be happy with the pick? I’m guessing many Rams fans would at least feel better about it. On the other hand, Mooney was one of the last picks in the 5th round last year. If Mooney and Atwell are similar, why are the Rams drafting a late 5th round type WR in the 2nd round?

Another WR who was similar to Mooney last year was Scotty Miller of the Bucs, who was a compensatory 6th round pick in 2019. Miller was 5’9” tall and 174 pounds, with almost exactly the same arm length and hand size as Atwell and nearly identical testing numbers. Lance Zierlein gave Miller a 5.60 draft grade and UDFA projection. I think Miller is a good player for a late 6th round pick. In a redraft, he’d presumably go higher. But, again, if you can find a Scotty Miller in the late 6th round area, why is Les Snead drafting one in the 2nd round? If he had offered a 3rd round pick straight up in a trade to TB for Scotty Miller, I wonder if the Bucs would take that deal.

The Cardinals drafted Andy Isabella in the 2nd round (pick 62) in 2019. He had a 3rd to 4th round projection from Lance Zierlein and a 6.10 draft grade. He was just under 5’9” tall, 188 pounds and a bit more length than Atwell. He ran 4.31 sec in the 40 at the Combine, with better jumping numbers and similar agility scores. I didn’t like Isabella enough to have him going that early, but if Isabella and Atwell were in the same draft, I’d take Isabella.

So far, Isabella has struggled to find his footing in the NFL. He had about 200 receiving yards last season and was graded 120th out of 127 receivers by PFF. Now that the Cards drafted Rondale Moore (pick 49, just a few slots ahead of Atwell) there is speculation about whether Isabella could be available in a trade. Like Scotty Miller, I wonder if Snead had offered a very low cost trade to Arizona, whether he could have gotten Isabella after the draft.

Last year, an article for Chiefs fans suggested that KC try to acquire Isabella for a 5th round pick. For sake of discussion, let’s say that one year later and after another disappointing campaign, Isabella could be had for just a swap of late round picks (say give up a 6th and get a 7th back). Even if we up the price, at most let’s say straight up for a 5th rounder. Isabella still has 2 years left on his rookie contract. Would you rather use a 5th rounder in the 2022 draft to get Isabella on a 2 year contract or a 2nd rounder in 2021 to have Atwell on a 4 year deal?

Austin Corbett type trades can sometimes give a team move value than draft picks. The Rams got Corbett for a 5th rounder, which the Browns used to select Richard LeCounte, a safety from Georgia. This was just a handful of slots before the Rams got Earnest Brown, the Northwestern edge rusher. Some notable names the Rams could have drafted at the Corbett slot include Garret Wallow, Daelin Hayes, Cam McGrone, Simi Fehoko, Talanoa Hufanga, Hamsah Nasirildeen, Deonte Brown, Jalen Twyman and Ben Mason. If the Rams wanted a fast slot WR and you liked Marquez Stevenson, he was also available at this slot. If one of those players turns out to be a superstar, the Corbett trade might not look as good in the long run. If they flop and Corbett becomes a long term center for the Rams, the trade will be a steal.

Did Atwell Fall in the Draft?

By many draft board rankings, the Rams drafted Atwell too early, in many cases at least 2 rounds too soon. Not every major draft board saw it this way. By a couple board rankings, the Rams got good value at 57.

ESPN had Atwell ranked 44th overall. Rondale Moore was ranked 54th overall, but was taken at 49. D’Wayne Eskridge was ranked 57th, and went to Seattle at 56, one slot before Atwell. Terrace Marshall was ranked 46th and went at 59, two slots after Atwell. So, among these 4 WRs, Atwell was the highest ranked, but the Rams got him 3rd in the draft order. If we went purely by BPA and strictly off of ESPN’s board, Atwell was a very solid draft pick at 57.

Sports Illustrated had Atwell ranked as the 4th best slot WR, with a 2nd round draft grade. So, the Rams took him exactly in the round where SI had him pegged. The 3rd ranked slot WR was Kadarius Toney, who was a 1st round pick, 20th overall. The 5th ranked slot was Amari Rodgers, who was a 3rd round pick by the Packers. Like ESPN’s rankings, if we go with SI’s board, the Rams didn’t reach at all by taking Atwell at 57.

Per SI’s board, the reach for a slot WR in the 2nd round was when Seattle took Eskridge. SI only ranked him as the 7th best slot, with a 4th round grade. So, the Hawks took him 2 rounds earlier than SI had him graded.

Things don’t look nearly as good once we move beyond ESPN and SI and look at other boards.

PFF 157th (5th round)

TDN 123rd (4th round)

Tony Pauline, PFN 120th (4th round)

CBSSports 111th (4th round)

Bleacher Report 113th (4th round)

Daniel Jeremiah 79th (3rd round)

Lance Zierlein 5.97 grade (4th round projection).

LZ gave Trishton Jackson a 6.00 grade last year, barely higher than Atwell. Jackson was an UDFA for the Rams. I think he was inactive all of last season and didn’t appear in any games for the Rams. If the Rams had drafted Jackson in the 2nd round last year instead of Van Jefferson, how would that pick look today?

Some of the other WRs in this year’s draft who got higher draft grades from LZ include: Jacob Harris (6.00), who the Rams drafted in the late 4th round, Tre Nixon (7th round), Demetric Felton (late 6th round), Kawaan Baker (late 7th round, one of the last picks in the draft), Shi Smith (6th round), Austin Wakins Jr (UDFA), Cornell Powell (late 5th round) and Cade Johnson (UDFA). In addition, LZ gave similar grades to Simi Fehoko (late 5th round), Frank Darby (6th round), Marquez Stevenson (6th round) and Ben Skowronek (5.86), who the Rams drafted in the 7th round.

WRs in the 2020 draft who had similar grades included Devin Duvernay (late 3rd round), DJ Hill (7th round), Tyler Johnson (5th round) and Quez Watkins (6th round).

LZ’s draft profile says that Atwell has electrifying speed, is a legitimate deep ball threat and home run hitter. He gets open on comeback routes and has good footwork making catches near the boundary. As negatives, says he’s a niche player, a gadget player. Can’t make contested catches in traffic. Rail thin, lacks commitment going over the middle, and fails to adjust routes to traffic and zone coverage.

Tony Pauline says he has home run speed, adjusts to errant throws, extends his hands to catch the ball, is a willing blocker, and isn’t afraid of contract over the middle (notice this differs from LZ’s take). Tiny, rounds off routes, has lapses in concentration, is easily knocked off routes, offers little contested catch ability, drops have been an issue, ran a limited route tree. TP saw Atwell is a 3rd round prospect.

Sports Illustrated says he has blazing speed, YAC potential off the charts, accelerates quickly off the LOS. Extremely small frame, easily overpowered, durability concerns due to small size, average route runner, needs to expand route tree if he’s going to be more than just a vertical threat and gadget player. Small catch radius, tends to rely on body catches.

Background

5’8 7/8” tall, 155 pounds, 29 1/4” arms, 69 3/4” wingspan, 8 7/8” hands.

He’s essentially a 2 inch taller version of JoJo Natson.

4.32 sec (40 time) (as noted above, there are discrepancies in how fast he ran, some sources have him considerably slower) 1.49 sec (10 yard split), 33” vert, 9’9” broad, 4.09 sec (shuttle), 6.87 sec (3 cone).

The lack of lower body explosion is a little concerning. Cole Beasley at 5’8” and 175 pounds had a 38” vert and 10’6” broad jump. Atwell at 20 pounds lighter can’t jump as well as Beasley. Atwell’s numbers are similar to those for Austin Proehl, who was a late 7th round pick in 2018 and was on a future contract with the Rams during the 2019 preseason. Proehl was 182 pounds and ran 4.41 sec in the 40 at a regional combine. He played in the XFL and is with the Niners on a future contract.

Turns 22 years old in October. Communications major. True junior. 3 star recruit. Was a dual threat QB in HS. Went to same HS as Teddy Bridgewater, who is something of a mentor and football “big brother” to him. Recruited mostly by mid-major schools.

Full name is Chatarius Atwell, Jr. Shares same nickname as his father, who was a WR for Minnesota in the mid 1990’s and at one time was the school’s career leading receiver. He’s now ranked 4th behind Tyler Johnson, Eric Decker and Ron Johnson. His dad had more receiving yards at Minnesota than Rashod Bateman. Dad was an UDFA in 1998 and had his career cut short by an Achilles injury. Parents are not married, but worked together to raise him. Interviews not very impressive. He’s too concerned about what people say on social media and what the press writes about him. Maybe that’s just how young athletes are these days, but I think many of them would be happier and better off if they learned to block out the noise, put down their phones and just focused on playing football. Who cares what random people on the street or on TST think and say about you?

2020 (9 games) 46 catches, 625 yards, 7 TDs

2019 (13 games) 70 catches, 1,276 yards, 12 TDs

Only 4 career punt returns for 84 yards. No KR experience.

Hampered by undisclosed injury in the middle of the 2020 season. Missed one game, limited in another one. Decided not to play in final game of season after consulting with parents. Had what seemed to be a minor knock in a 2019 game. He was going out of bounds trying to catch a pass along the sideline and the LB pushed him into a plastic folding table. The forehead of Atwell’s helmet hit the edge of the table, bending his neck back. Fortunately, the table seemed to give way and he returned and continued to play in the game. Could have been very scary collision if he had hit something heavier.

5 fumbles in last 2 seasons. 139 career receptions, which a fumble every 28 touches, a very high rate. Per ESPN, Desean Jackson has 7 career fumbles in the NFL, which is a fumble every 87 catches.

Strengths

Greased lightning. Instant burst of speed after catch. Explosive second gear at top of route coming out of break or in open field as runner. At times, simply way too fast for the defense to handle.

Background as former QB opens up potential for trick plays, especially since both Atwell and Cam Akers are former high school QBs. Attempted 4 passes in career.

Held back by mediocre QB play. Slight head fake, then runs past CB and up the seam, 3 yards past the CB, but the pass is way underthrown 40 yards downfield, ruining potential long TD, incomplete when WR can’t make contested catch. Runs past CB and a good throw would have been a TD, but the pass is way underthrown about 30 yards downfield and results in pass interference instead. Was open for screen passes and the QB misses him with poor accuracy or by bailing on play and not attempting the pass.

Once he gets up to speed, he’s very dangerous on jet sweeps, bubble screens and short bootleg dump passes. Flies past defenders who are unable to close down the angle to contain him.

Deep speed severely punishes DBs if they make a mistake and get out of position. One bad step and he can get past them, over the top, and it is impossible for them to recover.

Tracks ball well looking over his shoulder. Not limited to short passes, can be used as deep ball threat on vertical routes.

Hands are better than some other tiny WRs. Can extend hands away from his body and catch the ball. On high pass to the flat, he reaches up with one hand, stabs the ball and knocks it down to make the catch. Maintained concentration between 2 defenders near sideline to make clutch 3rd down reception.

Weaknesses

Way too small, not enough length or strength. Outside release, has step on the CB, adjusts to the ball in air and separates, looks over his shoulder but the pass goes just past his outstretched fingers about 35 yards downfield. Not big enough to reach out and get to the ball.

Hands are a mixed bag and can be unreliable. Nice pass to back of end zone on 3rd down in red zone. WR streatches out, has foot inbounds, but juggles and drops the ball, had 2 hands on it, but unable to control it as he tried to bring it into his body. Drop on medium 3rd down, pass right in his hands over the middle of the field and he can’t hold onto it through contact. Pass bounces right off of his hands and he’s not tall enough to make it an easier catch. Bobbled and dropped sure TD pass. Deep post, has chance for huge catch and potential TD, but ball appears to go right through his hands and gets intercepted by the DB standing behind him. Open for another deep bomb, very likely a TD, drops ball that hits him in both hands, arms not long enough to make it an easier catch.

Doesn’t have strong sense for how to create separation with release off of LOS or with break at the top of the route. Rudimentary and basic turns that are easy for defenders to read and stay attached to him. Drifts into breaks on variety of routes. Head fake transparent, because it isn’t linked with his hips, fails to deceive the CB. Should sit down against zone coverage, but just drifts into defenders. Not “sudden” at the top of the route. Footwork at the LOS on releases not clean and refined. Lost balance and slipped trying to juke at line. Very sloppy angle route makes it easy for DB to read and drive on it, breaking up the pass. Rounded breaks leads to defenders driving on the route. Lack of attention to detail on footwork on screen pass causes defender to jump the screen, making block for the other WR more difficult. Medium 3rd down, just runs directly into defender in coverage, colliding with him instead of going around him to get open. Critical long 3rd down play, his stutter step fake at the LOS isn’t effective, CB jams and delays him and there is very little separation as they run down the field. Long 3rd down, invites the safety to drive on route by giving away the break, allowing the safety to reach in front of him and break up the pass.

Too easy for the first defender to knock him to ground and tackle him. No running strength, contact balance or power. On jet sweeps, if you chop him down or grab him before he can get going fast, he doesn’t go anywhere, it is a TFL or no gain. Not slippery or elusive.

Doesn’t fight back towards the QB and use his body to protect the catch point. An INT waiting to happen when he allows the defender to get over the top and beat him to the ball.

Very little contested catch ability. Near sideline, facing the QB, unable to jump up in the air and secure the ball when next to the CB. Can’t always find the ball in the air with his eyes. Going over middle, has chance for big play on deep post, but his arms are short and when the DB grabs his shoulder, he’s unable to make the catch.

Poor run blocker. Doesn’t find and maintain good blocking angle. Too weak. Disappointing effort when the QB scrambles, ruins potential 1st downs by not making downfield blocks. Other plays, blocking effort is just sufficient. Not enough aggression and “want to” as blocker. Very frequently used as decoy with ghost motion, so he wasn’t required to block at all on many run plays. Easily shoved out of the way as blocker.

Borderline fumble was ruled on replay to be an incomplete pass, so his official fumble total doesn’t even capture full extent of his ball security issues. Doesn’t tuck the ball quickly high and tight, exposing the point of the ball, lacks strong grip. Ball sometimes comes out when he hits the ground.

Requires a system to manufacture opportunities for him. He’s not a WR who can be relied on to just line up and beat his guy consistently all game and create plays on his own.

Verdict

In 2017, I wanted the Rams to draft guard, Forrest Lamp. Projected to be a 1st round pick, Lamp slid into the top part of the 2nd round, the 38th overall selection. Instead of taking Lamp at 37, the Rams traded out of that slot, moved down and took Gerald Everett. With the pick they received in the trade, they got John Johnson in the 3rd round. I liked Johnson, he was a prospect I was interested in for the Rams. When some fans questioned whether the Rams had reached for JJ, I argued that I had Johnson ranked ahead of Shaq Griffin, a similar DB I liked, who Seattle took in the slot immediately ahead of Johnson. Griffin turned out to be a good player in his own right and got a lucrative FA contract out of it from the Jags.

While I was happy with what the Rams did with the Johnson pick, I was bitterly disappointed when Snead passed on Lamp. Instead of drafting OL that year, the Rams drafted TE and a WR, Cooper Kupp. The Rams already had a slot WR, Tavon Austin and the year prior signed Tavon to a new 4 year contract. The strategy to bolster offensive skill positions and ignore the OL seemed questionable. In 2016, the Rams had the 27th ranked offensive line in the league.

The Chargers were even worse than the Rams in 2016, ranking 31st. Unlike the Rams, they did something about it in the draft, taking Lamp in the 2nd round and Dan Feeney in the 3rd round. Pat Elflein and Feeney were the next 2 picks after Cooper Kupp. On TST, we debated whether the Rams should take Elflein in the 2nd round. I argued against that idea, because I didn’t think Elflein was good enough to be taken that early, even though the Rams had a need at center. Once you got to the 3rd round, however, I wouldn’t have had an issue if the Rams had taken Elflein instead of Kupp. The Rams also showed considerable interest in Feeney that year.

Lamp got injured before his career started, tearing his ACL in training camp as a rookie. In 2019 he broke his leg. He finally became a starter in 2020, his 4th NFL season. The results were not good. He had a 49.4 PFF grade, ranking as one of the worst guards in the NFL, 72nd out of 80. The Bills signed him to a dirt cheap one year contract.

Pat Elflein hasn’t been any better. Last year, he had a 48.0 grade, ranking 73rd out of 80 among guards. Elflein was the lowest ranked center in the NFL in 2018, with a 41.9 grade. If the Rams had actually drafted Lamp and Elflein with their 2nd and 3rd round picks in 2017, instead of solidifying their interior OL for the next decade, they might have ended up with two of the worst guards in the league last season.

In hindsight, what Snead did in 2017 ended up working extremely well. The Rams offensive line had a stunning bounce back, bolstered by Whitworth and cheap FA, John Sullivan, becoming one of the very best OLs in the NFL over the 2017 and 2018 seasons. While GE didn’t become a dominant TE, he did become a key contributor. Kupp and Johnson became top performers at their respective positions.

Since the 2017 draft failed to cure the OL problems for the Chargers (they ranked 32nd, dead last, in the NFL last season) they went out and signed Corey Linsley to a big contract, luring him away from GB. Five slots after the Rams picked Atwell, the Packers took Josh Myers.

The pick right after that, the Chiefs drafted Creed Humphrey. Will the Rams regret passing on Myers and Humphrey? Or will those players turn out to be new versions of Lamp and Feeney 4 years from now? Can Tutu Atwell become the counterpart to Cooper Kupp?

It has happened before, so anything is possible, but right now I’m steamed at Les Snead. Just as in 2017 when the Rams decided to prioritize TE in the 2nd round, I’m mystified by the Atwell pick. I feel like the Rams just drafted a 5th round type WR instead of addressing other needs on their roster. Did McVay not watch the Super Bowl? KC had Mahomes, Hill, Kelce and Andy Reid and they still got dominated.

Maybe the OL will be fine. But, what if things go south and it becomes 2016 or 2019 all over again? Matthew Stafford only has a limited window of opportunity left in his career to chase a SB. It would be highly ironic (and make me angry) if Stafford left the Lions just as they were building one of the top young offensive lines in the NFL (they just drafted Penei Sewell, considered to be an outstanding LT prospect) and jumped ship to the Rams right as their OL was in decline.

As a pro comparison for Atwell, I’m going with Jakeem Grant of the Dolphins. Grant played at Texas Tech with Patrick Mahomes under Kliff Kingsbury and in 2015 had 90 catches for 1,268 yards and 10 TDs. He had solid numbers the previous 2 seasons with Davis Webb splitting time with Mahomes and Baker Mayfield. Former Ram, Bradley Marquez was on one of those teams. Grant was also a great kick and punt returner.

Grant: 5’6” tall, 165 pounds, 29 3/4” arms, 71” wingspan, 8 5/8” hands.

Grant is 3 inches shorter, but his length is a hair better and he weighs more. Grant has a thicker build.

4.37 sec (40 time), 1.54 sec (10 yard split), 36.5” vert, 9’9” broad, 4.03 sec (shuttle), 7.03 sec (3 cone).

At his pro day, a scout for the Saints supposedly hand timed him at 4.10 seconds in the 40. One source had him at 4.34 seconds.

Very similar testing scores. If adjusted for their relative weight, I bet Grant would have the edge.

Jakeem Grant was a 6th round pick in 2016. He was taken in the area where the Rams drafted linebacker Josh Forrest, another fantastic Les Snead selection in his collection of greatest hits. Grant is still with the Dolphins and for a 6th round pick has been a good player. The most receiving yards he’s had in any season came last year, with 36 catches for 373 yards. If they were in the same draft, I’d probably go with Grant over Atwell. Let me repeat that for emphasis, I don’t think it is clear whether the 2nd round WR the Rams just drafted is any better than the 6th round WR the Dolphins drafted in 2016.

In the same draft as Grant, the Fins drafted a much more heralded WR prospect, Leonte Carroo, in the 3rd round. He never had even 100 yards in any season of his brief NFL career. The 15th overall pick in that draft was Corey Coleman, a 1st round bust. Josh Doctson and Laquon Treadwell also were 1st round busts that year. Braxton Miller was a 3rd round prospect who intrigued teams as a conversion from QB. He wasn’t successful as a pro. The Rams drafted Pharoh Cooper in the 4th round. Cooper is currently a street free agent.

Grant is on a team friendly 4 year contract with a salary of about $5 million per year. By the structure, it is a year by year deal, but the salary shows that Miami sees him as a valuable player. When Ted Karras was signed in FA to be the starting center for the Dolphins in 2020, his one year contract was for $4 million. This season, it appears that Matt Skura on a very cheap one year deal might be the starting center for Miami. So, for 2 straight seasons, you could say the spending by Miami means that Grant as a returner and gadget WR is more important to their team than the starting center. When the Fins beat the Rams last year, one of the pivotal plays was a long punt return TD by Grant. He also had a nice kick return earlier in the game. If we use the Miami model, maybe it isn’t so crazy for the Rams to value Atwell over drafting a center. Would you rather have Jakeem Grant on your team or Dan Feeney?

The proof is in the pudding. The results on the field will tell us whether Snead and McVay were right to place their trust in a 155 pound WR. Count me in the “skeptical” camp on the Tutu Atwell pick. I don’t think it is going to work. But, just as in 2017, this is the direction the Rams leadership decided to go in and we’ll just have to see how it turns out.



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