Los Angeles Rams WR Van Jefferson Is NFL's Biggest Under-the-Radar Impact Rookie

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystAugust 26, 2020

Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Van Jefferson (12) goes through drills during an NFL football camp practice Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020, in Thousand Oaks, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

The Los Angeles Rams' Van Jefferson will be the top-producing prospect from a historic class with 37 wide receivers drafted four months ago. 

Eleven wide receivers heard their names called before Jefferson in April's NFL draft, yet this year's No. 57 pick is primed to surpass all of them and make the biggest rookie impact. 

A top target on the field doesn't have to be one during the entry process. 

Five wide receivers were taken before the New Orleans Saints chose Michael Thomas with the 47th pick in 2016. Thomas has gone on to shatter numerous NFL records and become the league's best wide receiver. 

In fact, Amari Cooper, whom the then-Oakland Raiders selected with the fourth pick in 2015, serves as the last rookie wide receiver selected highest in a given draft to lead his class in receiving yards.

So, don't expect the Raiders' Henry Ruggs III to lead this year's crop. Instead, look toward Jefferson—who's in an ideal setting and ahead of the developmental curve—as the most likely to explode this fall. 

Rams players and coaches can't stop raving about Jefferson and his maturation. Head coach Sean McVay explained, per The Athletic's Jourdan Rodrigue

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"We want to be able to have guys that are versatile that can play all over the formation. And I think that's one of the things we liked so much about Van, is he can certainly win isolations outside, he can work inside on option routes where he understands how to work leverages and recognize coverage contours. ... And you can see, kind of like what we've talked about ever since we drafted him, he's got a knack for the game. Football just makes sense to him."

Football should come naturally to the rookie as the son of current New York Jets assistant head coach and wide receivers coach Shawn Jefferson, who played 13 seasons with the San Diego Chargers, New England Patriots, Atlanta Falcons and Detroit Lions. The two worked hard together to reach this point, with the 51-year-old grooming his son into a professional long before Van ever wore a Rams uniform. 

"He coached me hard," Jefferson said of his father, per the New York Daily News' Manish Mehta. "I remember a lot of times we'd go to the facility, and he'd just work me for hours. Just catching balls. Doing footwork. Now that I look back on it, I'm glad that we got those sessions in and we did that."

As a result, the 24-year-old isn't as inhibited as other first-year receivers who are trying to find their way. The Rams don't have to pigeonhole him into one position so he catches up faster. Instead, the staff can throw everything at Jefferson, and he'll respond. 

"He's been really good. I say that cautiously because you never want these young guys to get too far ahead of themselves," quarterback Jared Goff told reporters with a laugh. "But he's been really impressive and done a good job. It reminds me a lot of when Cooper [Kupp] was a rookie, and he was just so far ahead of where a rookie kind of should be."

For comparison, Kupp led the Rams as a rookie with 869 receiving yards. And he came out of Eastern Washington, not the SEC, like Jefferson, who played at both Ole Miss and Florida. 

Plenty of other differences exist between then and now too. For example, McVay's system is entering its fourth season in L.A. He's no longer a rookie coach. Also, the Rams have two established receivers in Kupp and Robert Woods. But the third spot remains wide-open after general manager Les Snead traded Brandin Cooks and a fourth-round draft pick to the Houston Texans for a second-round selection, whichchecks notes—turned into Jefferson. 

Uncredited/Associated Press

The Rams featured a mix-and-match trio of receivers last season. Granted, Kupp played more from the slot than Woods and Cooks, but all three moved in and out of the formation. Josh Reynolds isn't as versatile, as the majority of his time was spent working outside the numbers. Jefferson will create more flexibility within the formation if and when he surpasses Reynolds on the depth chart. 

At 6'1" with 32¾-inch arms, the rookie has a larger catch radius than Reynolds, whose game is predicated on stretching the field. What really separates—no pun intended—Jefferson from other rookies is his polished route running, which will allow him to excel in any role.

"All of those guys (Woods, Kupp and Reynolds) told me, 'Learn all of those positions so they can just throw you in there at any position when they need you,'" the rookie said, per Rodrigue. "Paying attention to those guys and learning from those guys, they have been very helpful toward me." 

Los Angeles does feature multiple talented targets, and they'll help expedite Jefferson's growth. Still, the second-round pick already has a plethora of tools to get open. 

Watch Jefferson's releases—how he varies his routes, drops his hips at the top of his stem, works his way across the defender's face, explodes through his route, creates separation and always catches with his hands, courtesy of Pro Football Focus: 

"He understands techniques and leverages and how to use those to your advantage," Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said, per Mehta, after he coached the receiver at the Senior Bowl. "Then he's got the ability to separate at the top. ... His ability to separate and suddenness is what I think is going to make him a really good player." 

Now, factor in that the transition is somewhat easier for the young receiver based on what was asked of him during his time with the Florida Gators. 

"Yeah, I'm sure that's part of it," Goff added. "Just being in an offense that does, maybe, some similar things at Florida. I'm not sure how much was similar, but more than anything, it's the way he approaches it every day. The way he comes to work and is a pro." 

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

The Rams scheme creates opportunities. Within the last two years, the team's three primary targets (including Cooks before he was moved) posted at least one 1,000-yard campaign. Jefferson can do the same this year as opponents roll toward Kupp and Woods, because he can take advantage of one-on-one coveragewhether he's the X-, Y- or slot receiver. 

Since Jefferson can do so, he'll allow the Rams to once again build a comfort level with "11" personnel, which the organization leaned on heavily during the '18 campaign when it made a Super Bowl appearance. The Rams went from being in 11 personnel 89 percent of the time two seasons ago to 73 percent last year, according to Sharp Football Stats' Warren Sharp

While some positive expectations can be placed on Reynolds, Jefferson is clearly the wide receiver in Rams camp turning heads. His polish, ability and readiness for the moment are already apparent, which will turn him into the league's most productive rookie wide receiver once the unprecedented '20 campaign begins. 

"Just early on, to be able to be at that point is pretty impressive," Kupp said of Jefferson's next-level thinking and question-asking, per Rodrique. "I think he's going to be an incredible football player. ... As long as he keeps progressing the way that he has been, he's going to be able to play in this league for a long time."

               

Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @brentsobleski.