Rethinking the situation was not an option for Brycen Hopkins.
After Rams tight end Tyler Higbee sidelined for Super Bowl LVI with a knee injury and backup Kendall Blanton suddenly pulled out of the game at SoFi Stadium with a shoulder injury, the Rams turned to the rarely used Hopkins.
Hopkins was inactive for most games during his two NFL seasons. Now, coach Sean McVay and quarterback Matthew Stafford could put the ball in the hands of a player who’s had a career catch overall.
Hopkins stepped forward and caught four passes in the 23-20 win over the Cincinnati Bengals.
“When you realize you’re last, you have to make your decision quickly — and I was prepared for the moment,” Hopkins said Monday after a practice session at UC Irvine training camp. “I wasn’t nervous about anything. … I was definitely ready.”
Now the Rams are gearing up for another potential run to the Super Bowl, aiming to become the first team to repeat the title since the 2004 season.
They’ll need power from their tight ends to pull off the feat most recently accomplished by the New England Patriots.
Higbee, a seventh-year pro, is a tried and true commodity. Blanton has gone from being an undrafted free agent to a reliable reserve. And Hopkin’s Super Bowl performance perhaps showed why the Rams opted to pick him in the fourth round two years ago when there was no obvious need for a tight end.
“Those three guys played in real games — these are big games,” McVay said. “Whether it’s the plays that Brycen does in the Super Bowl…. And then Kendall was able to gain some confidence by playing as much as he did in both the NFC Championship and the first half of the Super Bowl.
“I think the guys picked up where they left off. We want them to keep improving, but we have three guys that we feel good about.”
Higbee, a fourth-round draft pick in 2016, carries an $8 million salary cap in the penultimate year of a renewal he signed in 2019.
Last season, Higbee caught 61 passes, five of them for touchdowns. He suffered a knee injury in the NFC Championship game against the San Francisco 49ers that forced him to sit out the Super Bowl before undergoing surgery.
A month after the September 8 opener against the Buffalo Bills at SoFi Stadium, Higbee appeared to be at full strength from the start of training camp.
“Back to everything and shake off some of the rust,” he said.
Higbee, 29, is “a staple, old vet” who sets an example for younger players, said Thomas Brown, this season’s tight ends coach, after coaching running backs for two seasons.
Blanton was signed by the Rams in 2019. He spent two seasons on the practice team before former Rams tight end Johnny Mundt suffered a season-ending knee injury last season against the New York Giants.
Blanton, 26, caught four passes for 37 yards during the regular season. He caught a touchdown pass in the first quarter in a 30-27 NFC divisional round win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He had five receptions in the NFC championship game, winning against the San Francisco 49ers.
Blanton started the Super Bowl in place of Higbee and was looking to continue playing after suffering what he believed to be a dislocated shoulder in the first half.
“I stayed in and it came out on the next piece,” he said. “I ran to the sidelines and they kind of moved it around and put me in a harness for two or three more games but it kept coming out.
“We were down at the time and as a competitor you want to be out there on the field.”
Despite his rise up the depth chart, Blanton said he hasn’t changed an approach he took as an undrafted free agent.
“I know how I got into this and the work it took to get there,” he said. “I’ve been improving every year, so why change now?”
Hopkins, 25, has made adjustments and finally seems comfortable and able to play with focus.
He caught his first pass last season, a crucial third down against the Seattle Seahawks. But his performance in the Super Bowl raised his profile. He played a career-high 39 snaps and had two 16-yard receptions and two more that combined for 15 yards.
“I was physically tired but my mind was still focused and focused on what I needed to do,” he said, “and that felt like another day. .The more relaxed I am out there, the better I can focus.”
The Rams expect Higbee to return to form and Blanton and Hopkins to continue their growth.
Higbee is optimistic after observing his younger teammates during training camp.
“They did some great things late last year and hopefully gained some confidence to build on that,” he said, adding. “We will need them this year.”
https://www.latimes.com/sports/rams/story/2022-08-08/rams-brycen-hopkins-tight-ends Why Rams’ Brycen Hopkins is more than third wheel at tight end