Breakout Live breaks down the key positional matchups heading into Super Bowl 53. Next up: Wide receivers and tight ends.
Los Angeles Rams
2018 brought big changes to the Rams wide receiving corps as the Rams watched Sammy Watkins take a big money deal from Kansas City which left a void in the unit. Gone was the big play ability and speed Watkins brought along with his 8 touchdowns.
In order to replace Watkins, the Rams got aggressive and struck a deal with the Patriots to send their 1st-round pick to New England for Brandin Cooks, who would be on his 3rd team in 3 years. The diminutive but speedy former 1st-rounder fit right in with the Rams, giving them 3 legitimate weapons at the position paired with Woods and Cupp. Cooks set a career high in yards in McVay’s system, topping 1200 yards and a healthy 15.1 yard average along with 5 touchdowns. Cooks also led the way against his other former team in the Saints as the only wide receiver in the game for either side who would top 100 yards.
Robert Woods took another step in his development under McVay in 2018, also setting career highs in yards with 1200+ just like Cooks, and besting his career mark in touchdowns with 6.
Getting 1200-yard seasons out of both Cooks and Woods was the good news for the Rams, but it wasn’t all good news for L.A. The Rams got only 6 full games from the ascending Cooper Kupp before losing him for the season to an ACL injury vs. Seattle. Had Cupp stayed healthy, it’d have been interesting to see if the Rams could’ve fielded a unit featuring three 1000-yard wide receivers. Cupp appeared in 8 games but only finished 6. If you extrapolate Cupp’s numbers in the 6 games he started and finished, he was pacing for just over 1400 yards and a crazy 16 touchdowns, which would’ve led the NFL.
Josh Reynolds, and not the tight ends Everett and Higbee, would help pick up some of the slack from the tall and slender 2nd year talent from Texas A&M. Reynolds chipped in 402 yards and matched Cooks in touchdowns with 5.
Although Reynolds was serviceable in Cupp’s absence, the Rams passing attack wasn’t and isn’t the same without Cupp.
For all the things Sean McVay does on offense, the one thing he doesn’t do is emphasize the tight end position. The Rams have two fine tight ends in Gerald Everett and Tyler Higbee, but both are under utilized. While the wide receivers in this offense were busy posting 1200-yard seasons, the pairing of Everett and Higbee combined for just 612 yards and 5 scores.
New England Patriots
Bill Belichick likely loathes fantasy football, but he churned his wide receiving corps like the most neurotic fantasy player in fantasy history. It’s remarkable looking back on the Patriots 30-plus transactions made this season at the position. That’s not a typo. 30-plus transactions at the wide receiver position since training camp 2018. Clearly, this unit wasn’t what Belichick was looking for as it remained a work in progress throughout the season.
If 30-plus transactions wasn’t enough, the craziness didn’t stop there. Gone was steady and sure Danny Amendola, who left for the heat of Miami. Gone was the speedy and productive Brandin Cooks in a trade with the Rams. Clearly desperate for talent at the position after getting rid of plenty of it, the Patriots were the team that made the move they typically wouldn’t make by bringing in troubled but mega-talented Josh Gordon for a 5th-rounder from the Browns. If the Browns give up on you it’s a harbinger, but something Belichick was uncharacteristically willing to gamble on.
Gordon came with so much promise but also a ticking time bomb element that you could feel would show itself at some point. That bomb would drop before Week 16 as Gordon would tweet to the world he was leaving the Pats for health reasons, which turned out to be code for him getting suspended for his likely final time from the NFL and ending a troubled career. For his 11 games in Foxborough, Gordon produced 720 yards on 40 catches with 3 touchdowns. The bigger loss was the threat Gordon brought in forcing the defense to respect his incredible talent, which opened avenues for other Patriots wide receivers.
Left in New England were Julian Edelman, who earlier served a 4-game PED suspension, Chris Hogan, Cordarrelle Patterson, and Phillip Dorsett.
Somehow, Tom Brady was able to make due with this motley crew of wide receivers. Dorsett and Patterson both failed to break the 300-yard receiving mark, and Hogan couldn’t top 550, leaving Edelman to do all the heavy lifting with 74 catches for 850 yards and 6 touchdowns.
What about the ever reliable Rob Gronkowski? Gronk looked washed up at just 29 years of age. He tied a career low mark over 13 games with just 3 touchdowns. His previous season with 3 touchdowns came in just 8 games. There was no pop in Gronk’s game this season, as he looked worse for wear with all the injuries finally catching up with him evidenced by just 8 plays of 20+ yards in 2018. A meager 47 catches for under 700 yards was actually in a way very sad to witness. However, in typical old Gronk fashion, it was Gronkowski making a huge catch in overtime that up the game-winning score which sent the Pats back to the Super Bowl for the 3rd straight season.
Going by the numbers, this one’s a flyweight vs. heavyweight matchup. New England didn’t have a single receiver pass the 850-yard mark, but as noted above, Julian Edelman only appeared in 12 games. The Rams, however, saw two guys top 1200 yards in Woods and Cooks. This one’s played on a fast track in Atlanta, giving another edge to the Rams especially with Cooks speed.
New England devised a game plan to slow Tyreek Hill in the AFC Championship and they’ll need to do it again. The Rams also struggle with man/press coverage as Cooks and Woods catch rates both dropped by more than 20 percentage points from their highs in the 70s against zone.
Edelman is the lone threat for New England, and it’d be a huge surprise if the venerable Wade Phillips doesn’t come up with something to limit his damage to force the lesser talents to beat him. There are so many other factors to consider besides just talent, like pass rush, defensive scheme, the quarterback throwing the ball, etc. This matchup still favors the Rams, but when considering factors beyond the raw numbers, it’s a lot closer than it would appear.