IRVINE, Calif. — It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say the Los Angeles Rams’ passing game this past season was a one-man show starring Cooper Kupp, leading the team in receptions (75), receiving yards (812) and touchdown receptions (6) despite missing eight games because of an ankle injury.
When Kupp hurt his hamstring in practice on Tuesday, an injury likely to sideline him for several weeks, it served to underscore that the Rams lack a proven understudy in their wide receiver corps. While Kupp is out they need to identify contributors capable of filling in if the MVP of Super Bowl LVI misses regular-season games.
There are plenty of reasons why the Rams sputtered on offense last season. Matthew Stafford was under siege behind an injury-riddled offensive line before he got hurt, giving way to John Wolford, Bryce Perkins and Baker Mayfield at quarterback.
The inability of Jefferson, Atwell or Skowronek to step into a larger role in Kupp’s absence certainly didn’t help matters, with tight end Tyler Higbee (72 receptions, 620 yards) ending up as the only other player to top 40 receptions or 400 receiving yards.
An effective third option during the 2021 season, Jefferson missed the first six games last year because of two knee surgeries and never looked quite right once he got on the field. He never had more than three catches in a game, finishing with 369 yards and three touchdowns on 24 receptions.
“Obviously, ’21, he was really healthy and had a really good year,” offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur said. “I know he’s attacked this offseason to make sure he feels as comfortable as can be.”
Atwell had two receptions of at least 50 yards last season, showing the tantalizing speed that led the Rams to use a second-round pick on him in 2021. But his slight build seemingly limits him from running the full route tree in coach Sean McVay’s offense, which would explain why he has barely played with 18 receptions for 298 yards and one touchdown to his name.
Skowronek, who often lined up as a fullback to create mismatches, was actually third on the team with 39 receptions and 376 receiving yards.
The intriguing rookie: Puka Nacua
When Kupp was held out of offseason workouts as he continued to recover from surgery in November, Nacua picked up plenty of that available work. The fifth-round draft pick from BYU was able to use it to accelerate his acclimation into the NFL.
“When he breaks the huddle, you can tell the guys that are comfortable and the guys that need help, and his comfort level is getting better and better,” LaFleur said.
LaFleur also praised Nacua’s knack for asking the right questions and being able to correct mistakes on his own. But whether he has the skill to consistently separate from defensive backs, an issue the Rams struggled with in Kupp’s absence last season, is something Nacua will have to prove he can do to be more than a possession receiver.
There is something to be said for having experienced success firsthand, and the Super Bowl rings on the fingers of Robinson — a two-time winner with the Kansas City Chiefs in a seven-year career — and Johnson — a third-year vet who was on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ 2020 title team — could offer some productivity.
Robinson, who arrived as a late signing in June after spending last season with the Baltimore Ravens, has been steady in all the best ways through training camp. He has just found ways to make plays, all the more impressive since he has often been working with rookie quarterback Stetson Bennett.
“I mean, he’s got a good swagger,” McVay said of Robinson, who has 193 receptions, 2,137 yards and 16 touchdowns in 114 career games. “You can just see the way that he even just moves around the field, he’s got confidence. … You can feel, he’s got that nice kind of edge where he is not afraid to go or do anything other than go attack an opportunity to make a play.”
McCutcheon turned a bunch of ridiculously athletic grabs in the preseason last year into a roster spot after it became evident the Rams weren’t going to be able to sneak the undrafted free agent from Montana State through waivers.
Trammell went from the practice squad to the active roster in his first season with the Rams and second in the NFL, seeing action in six games mostly on special teams.
Those are the paths rookies Smith, Hudson and Burmeister can hope to emulate as they try to stick around past training camp, but who’s to say if any of those five could emerge as something more than bottom-of-the-roster fodder?
“You like to think that as a position coach, as a coordinator, as a head coach, you got a pretty good pulse on each player, each position group,” LaFleur said. “But, again, you never know, particularly with a young team, until those lights go on.”