Countdown to Camp is a series breaking down the Rams roster by position group heading into training camp. The seventh installment examines the tight ends.
What does Rams tight ends coach Wes Phillips like about his group?
"What don't I like is really the better question," Phillips said with a laugh.
With the official start of Rams Training Camp presented by UNIFY Financial Credit Union on the horizon, it's easy to see why Phillips sees few, if any flaws in his group.
The tight end room currently consists of fifth-year pro Tyler Higbee, fourth-year pros Gerald Everett and Johnny Mundt, second-year pro Kendall Blanton and a "steal" of a draft pick in fourth-round rookie Brycen Hopkins from Purdue. Collectively, it's a unit regarded by scouting service Pro Football Focus as the fifth-best in the NFL.
Phillips, who is in his third season overseeing the Rams tight ends, saw Higbee, Everett and Mundt each play critical roles for Los Angeles in his second.
Both Higbee and Everett had career seasons in 2019. In Higbee's case, it set franchise single-season records for receptions (69) and receiving yards (734) for the position. Though Everett missed three games due to injury, he still produced career-bests for receptions (37) and receiving yards (408) in a single season. Meanwhile, with Everett out, Mundt ascended into a bigger role that helped him become a key contributor as a run-blocker.
"We've got just an excellent group that is not only talented as far as they've all shown what they can do, obviously, particularly Tyler and Gerald in the pass game, but also their attention to detail and their physicality in the run game," Phillips said. "So they really give us a lot of options."
For Phillips, Higbee's breakout play last season didn't come as as a surprise.
"Everyone who has been around our football team, players and coaches included, I think we all knew that he was capable of doing those types of things," Phillips said. "It was just about getting the opportunity and, you know, in this league, someone goes down with injury and someone's role increases, and Tyler was more than ready to step up what his number was called, for sure."
The opportunity, of course, came when Everett was unfortunately dealing with a knee injury. Now that he's healthy, Phillips is eager to have Everett back in the fold.
One might assume it's because of how valuable Everett is as a receiver, but Phillips reminded that Everett is also a capable blocker. When Higbee missed the Rams' Week 3 game against the Browns, Everett was tasked with blocking players like Pro Bowl defensive ends Myles Garrett and Olivier Vernon and "did a great job," according to Phillips.
"He's a smart player, he's instinctive, but extremely explosive," Phillips said. "One of the best athletes, maybe as far as raw, athletic talent – maybe the best athlete that I've coached. From a tight end standpoint, he can run. He's great with the ball after the catch. The first guy never brings him down. He's strong. He's explosive, from that standpoint running, but what a lot of people don't always realize either is that in the run game, that same explosion, it applies, and he's a tough, tough, tough man."
Just because the Rams tight end room already returns a lot of experience entering training camp doesn't mean Hopkins won't be able to contribute to the rotation. However, Like any rookie entering the upcoming NFL season, getting acclimated will take a little bit longer than normal due to the absence of on-field work during the offseason program – valuable time used for honing footwork technique, for example.
"He's been very studious, he's been studying everything, but it's still a lot for a young guy," Phillips said. "So right now, his job is just to make sure he knows his assignments. We're trying to work with the technique on the fly here and make sure he catches up to those other guys, because right now, he's behind. But, when you see him out there and you see him move, and when he does do a technique correctly, you see what he brings to the table. He's very athletic, he's strong, he's physical."
Like fellow rookie Terrell Lewis, though, that gradual transition for Hopkins should be smooth based on how well his college duties translate to the Rams.
"One of the reasons we liked him is that we could see him on tape at Purdue doing all the things we're really going to ask him to do," Phillips said. "He's just got to switch over that terminology and then kind of learn our technique the way we do it."