Cooper Kupp probably won't win MVP.
The odds for any player who doesn’t have a “Q” and “B” next to their name are wildly long. But he will without a doubt go down in history as one of the defining figures of the 2021 NFL season.
Kupp was a dominant force on a weekly basis on his way to winning the NFL’s unofficial “triple crown” title by leading the league in receptions (145), receiving yards (1,947) and receiving touchdowns (16). There have only been three other men in history to accomplish this feat: Steve Smith, Sterling Sharpe and none other than the great Jerry Rice.
He held decent gaps over the second-place players for catches (Davante Adams with 123) and yards (Justin Jefferson with 1,616). He came up just shy of all-time records like Michael Thomas’ 149 receptions in 2019 and Calvin Johnson’s 1,964 yards in 2012.
It wasn’t just a great season, it was a rare season.
Few folks on planet Earth had a better grasp of Kupp’s dominance than fantasy football gamers. Having the dynamic receiver on your team was equivalent to living life on easy street. Such a combination of floor and ceiling at any position, much less the usually volatile wide receiver spot, is … again, rare.
But Kupp wasn’t expected to be this dominant; not even close. The Rams wide receiver wasn’t even the first guy drafted from his team’s position group. Kupp’s consensus ADP checked in at a paltry 51st overall and WR19 by the end of summer drafts. He was a total steal.
Kupp was going right in the same range of drafts occupied by the dreaded “dead zone” running backs like Miles Sanders, Mike Davis, Myles Gaskin, etc. While some drafters were chasing opportunity-driven ghosts out of the backfield, others were taking a league-winner in Kupp.
So what happened to turn Kupp into this type of weekly smash player? And what lessons can we take to try and find “the next Cooper Kupp” in following seasons when trying to identify someone about to make a leap?
Luckily, Kupp gives us an easy outline to follow.
Cooper Kupp has always been good
As much as Kupp’s 2021 eruption came out of nowhere, it’s not as if he was an unknown by any means. Kupp has been one of the NFL’s top slot receivers since he was drafted in 2017. He had two 90-plus catch seasons in 2019 and 2020.
Former Rams’ quarterback Jared Goff had come to quickly adore Kupp as his security blanket. He brought reliability and a sprinkling of big-play juice to the interior of the Rams’ passing game. Frankly, I think Kupp had the best hands and was perhaps the best zone-beater at the wide receiver position from 2018 to 2020.
We weren’t coming into 2021 with Kupp as anything less than an established great starter. We had a baseline for his play already and that’s a strong starting point in outlining what happened next — and who could follow in his footsteps.
Role and ecosystem matters
Something I’ve always said about Cooper Kupp: He might inhabit the most unique role at the wide receiver position.
Kupp’s deployment as a big slot receiver for most of his career affords him the ability to get more layup looks than other 6-foot-2, 208-pound wide receivers do. He’s not out there working against press coverage every snap trying to get himself open on boundary routes. It’s not uncommon to watch film of Kupp and see him chip an incoming pass rusher before going out into a flat route completely wide open. That’s almost tight end stuff right there.
What Sean McVay did for Kupp designing this role early in his career was nothing short of brilliant. It didn’t just open up the world for Kupp, it helped create a whole new archetype of interior pass-catchers. It should have changed the way we look at the possibilities of a slot receiver.
I’m not sure we’ll ever see another player perfectly replicate what Kupp does. It’s nice to imagine putting another superstar in this layup-driven role but how many other wideouts are going to be as jazzed about consistently going over the middle or much less chipping as often as Kupp does in the blocking game? Kupp has the mentality and the — it’s a tired trope phrase but it matters in this role — grit to fill this spot. Few others do.
So really, the lesson we learn from Kupp in this category is more about the ecosystem. Finding the next breakout, “making the leap” player isn’t about finding someone that plays a Kupp-like role. Rather, it’s about sticking with teams that have a clear vision for their player and are developing a strong overall offensive environment.
Seismic shifts change everything
We finally arrive at the Matthew Stafford factor.
Take the EPA per play comparison charts between Stafford and Goff-led Rams’ offenses and throw them in the trash. We have a full season of evidence now, and several key moments in big games, that show us there’s no doubt Stafford brings new levels of possibility to LA’s attack.
There is no chance Kupp is having this season with Goff at quarterback. Kupp played the role of binky-like security blanket receiver for Goff. He was the leading man for the Stafford offense.
A receiver getting the addition of a quarterback who can take a good offense and jack up the ceiling on a play-by-play and season-long basis is exactly the type of variable we need to look out for in finding “the next Cooper Kupp.”
Wide receiver production is inherently dependent on the outside variables beyond the individual player’s ability. Kupp has always been good but when you switch out one of those variables for something better, you get his 2021 season.
Players get better
This is the hardest one to forecast. We often don’t know when an established veteran player is going to suddenly and without warning just jack their game up a level.
Kupp is 28 years old. This was his fifth season. He was not some new face.
But it’s clear to anyone watching him this year that Kupp has just straight-up kicked his game into overdrive. What’s the reasoning for that? Did he work harder than ever in the offseason? Did the Stafford trade motivate Kupp to craft his game even further? Was there some alteration to his prep, diet or workout routine?
We don’t know the answers to those questions and even if we did, we can’t say for sure that one thing or a combination of changes was THE reason Kupp made a leap in 2021.
If anything, this part of Kupp’s tale should remind us simply to keep our imaginations open. Do you think you’ve got a player in his prime all figured out and completely understand who he is? Maybe, but perhaps a 27/28-year-old veteran has yet another leap to make. At least keep your mind open to it.
Who could be the next Cooper Kupp?
The safest, and likely most accurate, answer to this question is: No one will be the next Cooper Kupp.
His remains so unique and his 2021 was so historic that we are very unlikely to see another player replicate this level of play in 2022 or beyond. These occurrences are rare for a reason.
That said, if we’re looking in the WR15 to WR25, overall pick 40 to 60 range where Kupp went last year for players who meet some of the categories laid out above … we can at least find some “make the leap” candidates:
Chris Godwin looks like he’ll fall into this range. He actually does play a relatively similar role to Kupp as a big slot. However, I strongly believe Godwin can do more than just the layup duties inside and is an explosive, man-coverage beating receiver. He was drafted in the same year as Kupp and could have more room to grow. Godwin is set to hit free agency this offseason so he could experience something of a seismic shift, though it’s tough to see him doing better than Tom Brady.
DJ Moore is one of the more cursed receivers in the league when it comes to quarterback play. He missed Cam Newton’s prime with the Panthers and has suffered through bottom-barrel passing play the last two seasons. If Carolina ever figures that out … Moore is absolutely due for a leap.
I fully believe that Terry McLaurin is a superstar receiver but has been left to toil in bad offenses for too long. He’s on that Allen Robinson career path when it comes to collecting random bad quarterbacks as his throwing partners. It wasn’t just a backup quarterback issue last year — he was about the only healthy threat in the passing game and therefore was too easy for defenses to scheme around. Washington will be in the quarterback market this offseason. If they land a big fish, I could see McLaurin going to the moon … especially if Washington works to get him more layups. He really is that good — the national audience just doesn’t know it yet.
Lastly, while he doesn’t fit into the “established veteran mold” and is unlikely to experience some sort of seismic shift while playing in Detroit’s ecosystem, it’s worth mentioning Amon-Ra St. Brown. I compared the 2021 rookie to Kupp coming into last year’s draft and once he finally earned an every-down role following a post-bye week promotion, he played a part quite similar to the Rams’ star. From an archetype perspective alone, this is the guy who could be next in line to Kupp.