February 23, 2024

Sean McVay is a master of misdirection.

As architect of the Rams’ offense and the playcaller, McVay utilizes formations, motions and other tools to make defenses believe the Rams are doing one thing when they really are about to do another.

McVay this week appeared to employ a similar strategy regarding the fate of former Rams receiver Van Jefferson, who was traded less than 24 hours after McVay said that Jefferson’s two-snap cameo against the Philadelphia Eagles was brief only because it was a unique game and star Cooper Kupp had returned.

“That was a combination of a lot of things behind the scenes,” McVay said Wednesday of the turnaround on the trade. “So we talked. We had our conversations. Think there was some honest dialogue about what … probably it was going to look like moving forward.”

When asked if Jefferson or his agent requested a trade, McVay said, “I’m going to keep all that stuff in house.”

The Rams sent Jefferson and a 2025 seventh-round pick to Atlanta for a sixth-round pick. McVay framed the transaction as a win for Jefferson, who presumably will have more opportunities with the Falcons to earn his next contract.

But was it the right time for the Rams to deal?

Kupp looked great against the Eagles in his return from a hamstring injury, but the Rams have yet to see how he holds up week after week. Rookie sensation Puka Nacua was limited in practices the last few weeks because of soreness. Diminutive Tutu Atwell has not played a full season as a starter. Ben Skowronek is nursing an Achilles issue.

Demarcus Robinson, who signed a veteran-minimum contract before the season, might now be active, and veteran Tyler Johnson could be activated from the practice squad.

Rams receiver Van Jefferson pulls in a pass during Super Bowl LVI against the  Bengals and cornerback Eli Apple (20).

Rams receiver Van Jefferson pulls in a pass during Super Bowl LVI against the Bengals and cornerback Eli Apple (20). That championship season was Jefferson’s best in the NFL.

(Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

Is that enough depth for a team that is 2-3 going into Sunday’s game against the Arizona Cardinals and beyond?

McVay said the Jefferson trade was “a reflection of the confidence I have in the totality of the receiver group.”

Jefferson’s future with the Rams beyond this season was anything but secure. He was in the final year of his rookie contract and was regarded as a potential trade piece, though one that might have netted a greater return from a playoff contender closer to the deadline.

Jefferson joined running back Cam Akers, another second-round pick from 2020, as players the Rams traded in the first five weeks of the season. Neither was making huge money. Akers was earning $1.5 million, Jefferson $1.4 million.

Akers’ exit was portended by McVay’s issues with the former Florida State standout that dated to before last season. Jefferson had no obvious issues off the field.

In 2021, he established career highs for catches, yards receiving and touchdowns during the Rams’ run to a Super Bowl title. Last season, after undergoing two knee surgeries, he played in 11 games and his production dropped by half. This season, Jefferson dropped passes in the first two games. He bounced back with a catch for a long gain against the Cincinnati Bengals and made a crucial fourth-down catch in the Rams’ overtime victory over the Indianapolis Colts.

Before Sunday, Jefferson played in no less than 83% of the snaps in the first four games. He was targeted 15 times and had eight catches for 108 yards.

Against the Eagles: He was on the field for two plays.

Now he plays for the Falcons.

“Hoping when he goes to Atlanta, he’s on the field a bunch and gets to play a bunch,” quarterback Matthew Stafford said. “He’s a talented football player.”

In a best-case scenario, the Rams in 2025 might find players in the sixth round who are comparable to safety Jordan Fuller and defensive backs Derion Kendrick and Quentin Lake, all sixth-round picks.

In a less-desirable outcome, key Rams receivers suffer injuries that sideline them during a potential playoff push while Jefferson is catching passes — and the eye of potential suitors — for the Falcons.

McVay thanked Jefferson for his contributions, wished him the best and said he appreciated him as a player and person.

He was straightforward about that.

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