Los Angeles Rams: DeSean Jackson the Key to Unlocking the 2021 Offense

by Blaine Grisak
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One of the biggest needs coming into the 2021 offseason was for the Los Angeles Rams to sign a deep threat. While the offense as a whole ranked 10th in DVOA, the passing offense ranked 19th according to Football Outsiders. Despite the offensive line performing better, the passing offense dropped from 15th to 19th.

Some of that blame is shouldered by Jared Goff, but some of it is also that the Los Angeles Rams just didn’t have a wide variety of personnel. Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods are good in the short and intermediate areas of the field. The Rams drafted Josh Reynolds to be a deep threat, but he never fully developed in that area. Instead, Reynold became more effective in the intermediate areas of the field like Kupp and Woods.

Gerald Everett made some plays down the field, but struggled with consistency. Between Everett’s lack of consistency and Goff struggling to complete passes to him when a play was there to be made, this was also a bust.

Defenses Stacking the Box

For the most part, the Rams lacked a deep threat and it showed with how defenses attacked the Rams offense. Defenses closed down in the box which forced the Rams offense to become very congested. This was shown by how often defenses put eight players in the box.

Last season, Cam Akers faced eight or more defenders in the box in the run game 37.9% of the time. Only Damien Harris, Wayne Gallman, and Peyton Barber faced more eight-man boxes. When you look at teams like the Giants and Patriots, both didn’t have the weapons to scare defenses or have consistency at the quarterback position. In the case of Washington, they didn’t have the quarterback to scare defenses.

Akers’ 37.9% eight-man box percentage was six percent more than Nick Chubb and 10 percent more than Derrick Henry. Those are both players that most would expect to see the most eight-man boxes. However, the Browns were able to get prediction down the field from Rashard Higgins. Higgins averaged 14.1 yards before the catch per reception which led the league. The Browns receiver also had a 14.1 average depth of target.

The Tennessee Titans were also able to rely on Corey Davis. Davis average 10.7 yards before the catch per reception which ranked 16th and had an 11.7 average depth of target. AJ Brown was in the double-digits in this area as well.

Last season, only Josh Reynolds and Van Jefferson hit double-digits in average depth of target and they averaged 10.2 and 10.4 yards respectively which ranked 67th and 73rd.

Even in 2019 when the offense wasn’t necessarily at its best, Todd Gurley only faced eight-man boxes on 23% of his carries. It was even less in 2018 at 7.1% of carries. That increase had some to do with defenses adjusting to the McVay offense, but also the injury and effectiveness of Brandin Cooks in 2019.

Missing Brandin Cooks and a Deep Threat

Cooks had averaged a depth of 13.1 yards per target in 2019 and averaged 12.8 in 2018. To add to that, Cooks ranked 17th in 2018 in yards before the catch per reception, averaging 10.7. In 2019, he was just below double digits at 9.9. Again, Josh Reynolds ranked 61st with 7.6 yards before the catch per reception and Jefferson didn’t qualify.

To show the importance of needing that deep threat, Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods both averaged just 4.9 yards before the catch per reception last season.

When it comes to the Los Angeles Rams’ lack of plays down the field in 2020, two things can be true. It’s fair to point out the ineffectiveness at the quarterback position. Jared Goff had just a 41% accuracy on deep targets which was one of the worst marks in the NFL. However, it’s also fair to point out that the Rams didn’t necessarily have the personnel to be effective down the field either.

Los Angeles Rams Fixing the Problem

To fix this, the Rams made a big trade to acquire quarterback Matthew Stafford. However, one thing could not be fixed without the other. The Rams could make improvement at quarterback, but without a deep threat, the offense would likely remain congested.

Therefore, with a cheap budget, the Rams went out and signed one of the best deep threats over the last decade – DeSean Jackson. While some fans were disappointed with the Jackson signing, with the budget that the Rams had in the cap space, this has potential to be a bargain.

Jackson has familiarity with Sean McVay from their time in Washington together. The two tried to team up in 2017, but Jackson opted for Tampa Bay and the Rams signed Robert Woods. Jackson remained an elite deep threat in Tampa Bay, but after being traded to Philadelphia, he has only played eight games over the last two years due to injuries.

DeSean Jackson Can Still Be Elite for the Los Angeles Rams

Still, when he’s had his opportunities and been on the field, Jackson has shown that he’s still able to do the thing that he does best – beat cornerbacks deep.

Jackson average depth of target last season was 16.6 yards which ranked seventh in the NFL. His long reception of 81 yards was also 25 yards more than any Rams receiver. That was despite just playing five games. With an ineffective Carson Wentz, Eagles running back Miles Sanders also only faced an eight-man box on 8.5% of his carries.

There are concerns about Jackson’s age and his health. However, it might be fair to criticize the Eagles training staff while applauding the Rams’. Last season, the Eagles were the second-most injured team in the NFL. The Eagles ranked 21st in injuries in 2019 and then dead last in 2018.

Luck certainly plays a factor when it comes to injuries, but a team’s training staff also plays a role. In that same time span, the Rams ranked fourth in 2018, 10th in 2019, and ranked 5th last season. With that in mind, Jackson could be more healthy than he has been the last two seasons. Because of that, he could see more playing time. A healthy Jackson benefits the Rams.

Conclusion

It’s also worth noting that the Rams aren’t necessarily going to ask Jackson to be the featured receiver. Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods will always be the top-two receivers in the Sean McVay offense. However, Jackson will likely be first in line as the 3a/b/c receiver along with Van Jefferson and TuTu Atwell. Being the veteran of the group, it would not be surprising to see Jackson lead that group in snaps.

The Los Angeles Rams struggled to stretch the field last season. However, with the addition of DeSean Jackson, that will no longer be an issue provided he can stay healthy.

The Rams offense flourished in 2018 when Brandin Cooks was able to stretch the field. With inconsistencies in 2019 and 2020, the passing offense took a dip. With the addition of a deep threat of Jackson’s caliber, the Sean McVay offense will once again be unlocked for the 2021 season.

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