What makes Brycen Hopkins more than a third wheel for tight-end rich Rams

Inglewood, CA - February 13: Los Angeles Rams tight end Brycen Hopkins (88) is tacked.
Rams tight end Brycen Hopkins (88) is tacked in the first half of Super Bowl LVI against the Cincinnati Bengals. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Overthinking the situation was not an option for Brycen Hopkins.

With Rams tight end Tyler Higbee sidelined for Super Bowl LVI because of a knee injury, and back-up Kendall Blanton suddenly out of the game at SoFi Stadium because of a shoulder injury, the Rams turned to the seldom-used Hopkins.

Hopkins was inactive for most games during his two NFL seasons. Now coach Sean McVay and quarterback Matthew Stafford might put the ball in the hands of a player who had a grand total of one career catch.

Hopkins stepped up and caught four passes in the 23-20 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals.

“When you realize that you’re the last one, you know, you’ve got to kind of just make your decision quickly — and I was prepared for the moment,” Hopkins said Monday after a training camp practice at UC Irvine. “I wasn’t nervous about anything. ... I was definitely ready.”

Now the Rams are preparing for another potential run to the Super Bowl, aiming to become the first team since the 2004 season to repeat as champion.

They will need production from their tight ends to accomplish the feat last achieved by the New England Patriots.

Higbee, a seventh-year pro, is a proven commodity. Blanton has gone from undrafted free agent to dependable reserve. And Hopkins’ Super Bowl performance perhaps showed why the Rams opted to select him in the fourth-round two years ago when there was no obvious need for a tight end.

“Those three guys have played in real games — that are big-time games,” McVay said. “Whether it's the plays Brycen’s making in the Super Bowl…. And then Kendall being able to get some confidence playing as much as he did in both the NFC Championship and then even the first half of the Super Bowl.

“I think those guys picked up where they left off. We want to see them continue to improve, but we've got three guys we feel good about.”

Rams tight end Tyler Higbee catches a pass during practice.
Rams tight end Tyler Higbee catches a pass during practice. He's back after missing Super Bowl LVI because of a knee injury. (Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

Higbee, a fourth-round draft pick in 2016, is carrying an $8 million salary-cap number in the second-to-last year of an extension he signed in 2019.

Last season, Higbee caught 61 passes, five for touchdowns. He suffered a knee injury in the NFC championship game against the San Francisco 49ers that forced him to sit out the Super Bowl before undergoing surgery.

A month from the Sept. 8 opener against the Buffalo Bills at SoFi Stadium, Higbee appeared to be at full strength from the outset of training camp.

“Getting back into everything and shaking some of that rust off,” he said.

Higbee, 29, is “a staple, the old vet,” who sets an example for younger players, said Thomas Brown, tight ends coach this season after two seasons coaching running backs.

The Rams signed Blanton in 2019. He spent two seasons on the practice squad before former Rams tight end Johnny Mundt suffered a season-ending knee injury against the New York Giants last season.

Blanton, 26, caught four passes for 37 yards during the regular season. In the 30-27 NFC divisional-round victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he caught a first-quarter touchdown pass. He had five receptions in the NFC championship game victory over the San Francisco 49ers.

Blanton started the Super Bowl in place of Higbee and wanted to continue to play after suffering what he thought was a dislocated shoulder in the first half.

“I stayed in, and the next play it came out,” he said. “I ran to the sideline and they kind of moved it around and put me in a harness for two or three more plays, but it kept coming out.

“We were down at the time, and being a competitor, you want to be out there on the field.”

Despite his ascent on the depth chart, Blanton said he has not changed an approach he adopted as an undrafted free agent.

“I know how I came in and the work it took to get there,” he said. “I’ve improved every year, so why change now.”

Hopkins, 25, has made adjustments and finally appears comfortable and able to play with focus.

Last season, on a key third down against the Seattle Seahawks, he caught his first pass. But his performance in the Super Bowl raised his profile. Playing a career-high 39 snaps, he had two 16-yard receptions and two others that produced a combined 15 yards.

Rams tight end Brycen Hopkins (88) participates in drills at practice.
Rams tight end Brycen Hopkins (88) participates in drills at practice. (Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

“I was tired physically, but my mind was still focused and locked in on what I had to do,” he said, “and that just seemed like another day. The more relaxed I am out there, the more I’m able to concentrate.”

The Rams expect Higbee to return to form and for Blanton and Hopkins to continue their growth.

Higbee is optimistic after watching his younger teammates during training camp.

“They did some great things at the end of last year and hopefully got some confidence, being able to build off of that,” he said, adding. “We're going to need them this year.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.