Cooper Kupp has been an impact player for the Rams since the first game he played in the NFL back in 2017. He’s as reliable as they come at wide receiver, catching seemingly everything thrown his way and proving to be a chain-mover on third down.
But in the biggest game of the season, the Rams will be without Kupp’s services after he reportedly tested positive for COVID-19. That’s a huge blow to the offense, especially with John Wolford making his first career start.
But fortunately, the Rams are deep at wide receiver and have the talent to at least somewhat fill the void left by No. 10 on offense. Here are two different ways they can do that, with both methods likely to be used throughout Sunday’s game against the Cardinals.
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The simplest way to replace Kupp would be to just elevate Jefferson to a starting role, either as the No. 2 or 3 receiver alongside Robert Woods and Josh Reynolds. Jefferson’s role has been minimal as a rookie, playing only 20% of the offensive snaps. He’s caught 15 of the 23 passes thrown his way, gaining 170 yards with one touchdown, picking up a first down on eight of his 15 receptions. Jefferson was a second-round pick this year and a player the Rams have extremely high hopes for. Being on a team that also features Woods and Kupp has limited Jefferson’s playing time, but this could be his best opportunity yet. “When Cooper went out a couple years ago you saw Robert Woods be able to have some position flex, Josh Reynolds can play either spot and then, the confidence in Van Jefferson is a good thing,” Sean McVay said Wednesday. “You're never going to replace a player of Cooper's caliber, but we do have capable guys to be able to step in and move around accordingly. That might mean tight ends getting some more work, but it also might mean you see more of Van Jefferson and some of those things.” Rams GM Les Snead said after the draft that Jefferson “reminds us of some combination of Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods.” Route-running is his best attribute, which can also be said about Kupp and Woods. So having a player with a very similar skill set to Kupp’s is highly beneficial. It won’t be a simple plug-and-play, because Kupp has become one of the top slot receivers in football, but Jefferson has the potential to be just as good someday. He can also stretch the field more than Kupp can, with his best play of the season coming in Week 1 against the Cowboys – a deep 31-yard, over-the-shoulder grab. The downside to simply plugging Jefferson in where Kupp would normally play is that there will be a drop-off in blocking. Kupp is outstanding as a run blocker, and is a reason the Rams have broken off so many long runs this season. Jefferson is still mastering that aspect of playing wide receiver, and so he shouldn’t be relied on the way Kupp is in the running game. But simply as a pass-catcher, Jefferson has a high ceiling thanks to his strong hands, precise routes and short-area quickness – and it’s why the Rams should give him more opportunities on Sunday. As a second-team player, he should have a good rapport with Wolford, having practiced with him and caught passes from the young quarterback often in practice.
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The other good option Los Angeles has to replace Kupp is by getting the tight ends more involved – a trend that has emerged all season, even with Kupp healthy. Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett are both playing meaningful snaps, often on the field together. Neither has put up big numbers, but the variety created by going away from 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) and more toward 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR) has kept defenses on their toes and helped Goff. According to Sharp Football Stats, the Rams have a success rate of 56% when throwing out of 12 personnel compared to 51% out of 11 personnel. Goff has two touchdowns and no interceptions in 12 personnel, averaging 7.4 yards per attempt and only taking three sacks on 99 dropbacks. He’s thrown 18 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions out of 11 personnel, taking 17 sacks on 456 dropbacks – a rate of 3.7% compared to 3.0% out of 12 personnel. Having two tight ends on the line of scrimmage helps protect the quarterback from edge pressure, which could benefit Wolford in his first NFL start. There won’t be as many explosive plays created with two tight ends on the field, but the protection will be better and tight ends should be able to find holes in Arizona’s coverage close to the line of scrimmage for easy completions. McVay said “there’s a possibility” the tight ends will be more involved with Kupp out, but regardless of the approach the Rams take, the coach is confident in his group of pass catchers. “We've got a group of receivers. Robert Woods has been outstanding in a variety of roles,” McVay said. “Josh Reynolds has played, started in a Super Bowl, in a conference championship, made huge plays, as has Gerald Everett, Tyler Higbee. Johnny Mundt's been in meaningful games.” Everett is more athletic than a traditional tight end, as is Higbee. And they’re both great blockers on the edge in pass protection and in the running game. Their skills were on display during this play against Washington, with Higbee taking care of the rusher off the left side and Everett slipping out for a 40-yard gain. Creating big plays like that one are easier said than done, but an increased usage of 12 personnel has thrown defenses off a bit this year after seeing the Rams use 11 personnel so heavily for three seasons. In all likelihood, it'll be a mix of Jefferson getting more opportunities and the Rams using 12 personnel on offense, as these are the two best options for replacing Kupp. And as McVay said, you can never truly replace a player of his caliber, but there are ways for L.A. to overcome his absence.