Perhaps Van Jefferson deserved better than having to enter his rookie season with high expectations. The Rams had traded away Brandin Cooks for the draft pick that became Jefferson, and his age (24) and NFL heritage (father Shawn Jefferson is a highly-respected receivers coach and was once a decent player himself) set a high bar based on the idea that he may not need as much adjustment time as most first-year players.
But there is another, far likelier scenario that could be playing out: Jefferson struggled to handle NFL speed and NFL size during his first season and he would need additional time to adjust to playing with and against professionals. It’s a career arc that most good players can relate to.
Davante Adams caught 38 of 66 targets for 446 yards as a rookie, and he was even worse in year two.
Allen Robinson received a lot of attention in Jacksonville with so few other talents to throw to, but his stats in 2014, 2016, and 2017 (albeit a lost campaign) were all quite bad.
Robert Woods caught only 40 of the 85 targets he received as a rookie with the Bills, and he didn’t even average over 7.0 yards per attempt until his fourth year in the league.
Adam Thielen caught 20 passes over his first two seasons combined and didn’t break out until he was 26; Chris Godwin caught 34 of 55 passes for 525 yards and one touchdown as a rookie; Emmanuel Sanders had 50 catches for 664 yards over his first two seasons combined.
We can go on and on with examples — I’m plucking from a few relevant ones — but we should know by now that Van Jefferson’s rookie season (19 catches, 31 targets, 220 yards) does nothing to preclude him from becoming a team’s number two receiver in the future. While he has little choice but to face comparison to 2020 draftmates like Justin Jefferson, CeeDee Lamb, Tee Higgins, and Chase Claypool, four of the immediate impact receivers to enter the league last year, Jefferson need not think about any other player besides himself.
This includes the receivers who are returning to the Rams next season, and the ones who they just added.
Last year, Jefferson basically entered a competition against Josh Reynolds and lost. The lack of a preseason and the shortened offseason programs, many of which went virtual, may have contributed to that. But Jefferson received 45% of the offensive snaps in Week 1, and 38% of the snaps in Week 2, only to see himself play a total of 66 snaps over the next nine games.
He received 59 snaps in the first two games alone.
Jefferson then saw 40 snaps against the Cardinals in December, but that resulted in only four catches for 27 yards. When he got another 44 snaps against Arizona in the season finale, Jefferson caught four of eight passes for 50 yards, playing the entire game with John Wolford as his quarterback.
It was by all accounts, his best game of the season.
Two weeks later, after playing zero snaps against the Seahawks, Jefferson stepped in for Cooper Kupp and received seven targets against the Green Bay Packers. He finished with six catches for 46 yards and a touchdown, his second of the season. He contributed in spite of Jared Goff’s broken thumb and surely there is something to be said about finally finding a place in an offense that seemingly had run out of chances for you.
He’ll need to bring the same mentality to find a spot in 2021’s rotation, especially now that Matthew Stafford is the quarterback instead of Goff and Wolford.
The Rams return Kupp and Woods, but also Trishton Jackson, Nsimba Webster, and J.J. Koski. More importantly, Los Angeles gave DeSean Jackson a contract worth up to $6 million and then drafted three wide receivers: Tutu Atwell in round two, Jacob Harris in round four (“tight end” in name only right now), and Ben Skowronek in round seven.
It could be that the only real objects between Jefferson and targets are Woods, Kupp, Jackson, and Atwell, but that’s a significant number of barriers and we haven’t even mentioned Cam Akers or Tyler Higbee yet in that equation. But Jefferson is only one year removed from being the 57th overall pick, one year before Atwell was the 57th overall pick.
If there’s optimism for Atwell, then there has to be nearly as much hope for Jefferson.