Following an impressive Thursday Night Football victory for the Los Angeles Rams, Peter Schrager of NFL Network’s “Good Morning Football” made a bold proclamation about the Rams wide receiver trio of Brandin Cooks, Robert Woods, and Cooper Kupp. Part of his sentiment was that the “Rams wide receiver trio is the best in the league...they might be the best of all time.”
Now, the way it was worded, it seemed as though Schrager was dubbing them as the current most talented trio in the league, with a chance at the best of all time ranking based on their statistical pace.
Many disagreed with his take, saying that their statistics are over-inflated from playing in the WR-friendly scheme of coach Sean McVay, and in a league where there are rules set up to protect quarterbacks and wide receivers. While they are talented, players like Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods haven’t been as productive on other teams, leading some pundits to believe that it really is the scheme of Sean McVay inflating their numbers.
Which brings us to a test of college and professional scouting, scheme knowledge, and success rate of outliers: Cooper Kupp.
Kupp was the Rams third round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft after a dominating career at the FCS level. While he produced 428 receptions, 6,464 yards, and 73 touchdowns as a four-year starter at Eastern Washington, as a draft prospect, many analysts underrated him for numerous reasons.
Kupp was just two months shy of turning 24 years old at the time of the Draft, making him an older wide receiver prospect. Additionally, Kupp tested poorly at the NFL Combine. He only broke the 13th percentile among wide receivers for the 40-yard dash, the 7th percentile for the vertical jump, and 23rd percentile for the broad jump, via MockDraftable. Overall, Kupp athletically tested in the 34th percentile compared to wide receivers, via Relative Athletic Scores.
An older FCS wide receiver with poor athletic testing? NFL teams said “pass.”
Expect for the Los Angeles Rams.
Now in his second season, Kupp is already up to 348 yards and 4 touchdowns through 4 games. Still, there are those doubters who believe his production is simply a product of Sean McVay’s system. People who believe on a different team, with a different head coach, quarterback, and wide receivers around him, that Kupp’s production would wildly decrease.
Could Kupp’s talent and production translate into different systems? In order to answer this, I dug into the Rams film from the past two games to see just where his production has been coming from.
McVay’s Genius and Goff’s Intellect
There were unquestionably plays in the two games in which Kupp was the beneficiary of scheme. It is no secret that Sean McVay is a fan of “Bunch” formations, where 3 or more eligible receivers are crowded closely together on one side of the formation, usually in the shape of a triangle. What I noted right away was just how often Kupp was aligned in the bunch.
These can be difficult for a defense to cover as the receivers stem in multiple directions. However, McVay has mastered a way to incorporate the Bunch formation into run blocking and in turn, misdirection and play-action.
On these two plays, Kupp ends up matched up with a linebacker because of alignment. In both scenarios, it seemed as though Goff put the offense in that position pre-snap. These are the match-ups that McVay and Goff consistently expose, and Kupp was the beneficiary. While this is a match-up every wide receiver should win, you also have to credit Kupp with executing them perfectly.
Here, the Rams use misdirection to hold the safeties and get Kupp moving opposite of the motion. While the scheme of this play is outstanding, the burst that Kupp shows to knife through the defenders and make a play on the ball was excellent. This is one of those scenarios where Kupp is benefiting from McVay, but also making a play that not every receiver can.
Beating Man Coverage
It’s no secret that Kupp isn’t exactly a field stretcher of a wide receiver. A player who “lacks” the straight line speed of Kupp will generally not thrive in that role -- but the Rams already have one of the best in the league at that role in Brandin Cooks.
McVay will instead use Kupp where he can thrive, and that usually includes avoiding double teams by staying underneath and separating.
On both of these occasions, Kupp found himself in solo coverage, and his crisp breaks and change of direction allowed him to separate. As a prospect, this ability was always evident on Kupp’s film. While some teams may have gotten hung up on the fact that Kupp wouldn’t be that downfield threat, it’s possible they overlooked his excellent 3-cone drill and short shuttle time, which are more indicative of route break efficiency.
Zone Coverage / Out of Structure
Kupp will generally align tighter to the formation, and as a receiver who operates a lot over the middle, adeptness at finding voids in zone coverage is a necessity. Kupp does an excellent job of this, able to find windows as Jared Goff processes the defense and goes through his progression.
Another portion of Kupp’s game that is effective because of his awareness is how he plays out of structure. When a play breaks down or a quarterback extends the play, Kupp does an excellent job of finding openings to make himself available. As a player who isn’t primarily a deep threat, this can be invaluable for a young quarterback to have that “safety net.”
Additionally, it resulted in a long touchdown for Kupp against the Los Angeles Chargers.
The film really opened my eyes to the ways in which the Rams as a passing offense operate. Everything works in unison and everyone has a role, with a quarterback who does an excellent job of diagnosing and placing the ball with proper touch.
Undoubtedly, these skill players benefit from having Sean McVay as the play designer and caller, but they have also been flawless with their execution.
When it comes to Kupp, he thrives in his role in the offense. However, he has enough traits to suggest that he could produce in many other offenses throughout the league. He will never be an uber-athlete at the position, but his route-running prowess, hands, and awareness would lead to similar production on other teams and with other supporting casts.