"Under the radar" plays from the Rams TE's

Gerald Everett is either a top-five tight end in the NFL or completely undraftable in your fantasy football league. It just depends which website you’re visiting.

And unfortunately, the latter opinion is more prevalent.

By way of example, I was reading this assessment of the best offensive arsenals in the NFL, and took umbrage with a throwaway line from Bill Barnwell (who is highly informed and very insightful).

“There's not much at tight end (in Los Angeles)…”

Hold up. The Rams have the most dangerous collection of skill players in the NFL, but their tight end play is lackluster?

I had to double-check to make sure this wasn’t just a fantasy football piece (it wasn’t). Because in that context, I can understand Everett’s statistics have been pedestrian. In fact, if you merged his numbers with those of Tyler Higbee, the combined Rams tight end contributions from 2018 were:

57 receptions, 612 yards, 5 touchdowns.

As always, there’s much more to it than that. And apparently Pro Football Focus has taken notice. Here are their tight end grades from 2018:

1) George Kittle, SF

2) O.J. Howard, TB

3) Travis Kelce, KC

4) Lee Smith, BUF

5) Gerald Everett

...

19) Tyler Higbee

I genuinely believe most Rams fans are giving that list side-eye. “We had two Top 20 tight ends last season?”

Clearly, there are massive discrepancies between how Everett and Higbee are perceived externally, to say nothing of how those who know them best – Rams coaches and executives – view their contributions.

New tight ends coach Wes Phillips might be able to help us bridge that divide, as someone who was outside the bubble in 2018, but has studied every rep from a season ago since joining the organization.

“I really think they’re both on the verge of breaking out as far as just being noticed more around the league,” Phillips says. “I think they’re a little underrated right now, for the types of players that they are.”

Underrated is an understatement.

If you want to stump your football friends, ask them which 2018 tight end led the NFL in passer rating when targeted.

Answer? Tyler Higbee. And it wasn’t close.

At least part of the reason the Rams tight ends aren’t yet household names is a two-fold lack of opportunity: the Rams used just one of them per play almost exclusively last season, and Jared Goff targeted them less often than their peers. Everett and Higbee ranked sixth and seventh on last year’s team in targets. They came in 123rd and 185th in the NFL, respectively. (And they would’ve been lower had Cooper Kupp not been hurt.)

By contrast, George Kittle and Jared Cook comfortably led their teams in targets by a wide margin last season. So did Travis Kelce and Zach Ertz, who each accumulated nearly twice as many targets as Everett and Higbee, combined.

That isn’t lost on QB1 entering 2019.

“You always try to move the ball around. I think last year that was a point of emphasis toward the end of the year to balance ourselves out a little bit,” Goff said recently. “Those guys can frickin’ play and we want to do our best to get them the ball just like everyone else.”

There seem to be three ways for the Rams to accomplish that goal.

First, throw to Robert Woods, Brandin Cooks, Cooper Kupp, and Todd Gurley less in order to feed Everett and Higbee more. I think we’d all agree, that’s not the best solution. It’s worth noting that Goff and McVay already distribute touches better than any offense in the NFL. Last year, the Rams were the only franchise to have six players with 50-plus targets (and Higbee wasn’t one of them). To be fair to the Rams tight ends, they happen to play on a team with two 1,200-yard receivers… and Kupp… and Gurley.

The second lever McVay could pull would be to deploy more two tight end sets. While intriguing, that requires taking a member of your dynamic receiving trio off the field. And if the appeal of 12-personnel is encouraging opponents to play more base defense, a consequence could be higher box counts working against Gurley. Maybe that’s a trade-off McVay is willing to make in 2019, especially if he’s able to create coverage mismatches with Everett.

Finally, if there aren’t enough slices of the pie to go around, grow the pie. The Rams finished 14th in the NFL in passing attempts last season; they ranked 24th in 2017. Far lower than you might expect from a team that has scored more points than any team the past two years. I strongly suspect they’ll be Top 10 this season, throwing more in the third year of the McVay-Goff alliance.

To do so, they’ll need Higbee and Everett to play their part in all phases, even if that means they’re seldom the first option in a progression.

“The tight end position involves so many different things,” McVay routinely says. “We’re moving them all over the formation, run game, protection.”

Both players should have a mastery of those expectations at this point. The first pick of McVay’s tenure, Everett starts 2019 healthy and primed to capitalize. Higbee is on the verge of free agency and equally poised for a career season.

“We’ve got to try to round it out,” Phillips says. “Become guys that, no matter what the call is, no matter which guy is in there, Coach McVay can feel comfortable to call anything from our playbook and know that we’ll execute it.”

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