How much are return men worth?
It’s a tough question because so many kick and punt returners at the NFL level have other roles. Unlike a kicker or punter or long snapper, many a return man are dual-hatted. Last year’s kick return yardage leader, Seattle Seahawks WR/KR/PR Tyler Lockett, had 45 receptions on 69 targets for 555 receiving yards. The AFC’s selection on return duty for the Pro Bowl, Kansas City Chiefs WR Tyreek Hill, had a monster year as a wideout. Tennessee Titans CB Adoree’ Jackson had a fine season both as a cornerback and a returner, something USC Trojans fans wouldn’t be surprised by.
So how then to gauge Los Angeles Rams WR/KR/PR Pharoh Cooper?
As a return man, Cooper was phenomenal after taking over for former WR/PR Tavon Austin...up until the wild card game against the Atlanta Falcons which we need not revisit in depth. But one bad day, albeit on the most important day of the schedule, shouldn’t gloss over a very successful season that earned Cooper a Pro Bowl invitation himself. But as a wide receiver, Cooper’s involvement was extremely limited taking just 144 snaps prior to Week 17’s backup game against the San Francisco 49ers. With such curtailed playing time, he only put together nine catches on 13 targets prior to Week 17.
Suffice to say, Cooper wasn’t very involved on the offensive side of things. And having switched WR Brandin Cooks in place of WR Sammy Watkins, there’s not much to suggest that Cooper will find greater involvement in Head Coach Sean McVay’s offense in 2018.
So with two years left on his rookie contract with little to show for it offensively and a ton to show for it as the return man for Special Teams Coordinator John Fassel, it makes the question very hard to answer.
How much are return men worth?
As the primary return man, there’s not really a battle as long as the nightmare in the Coliseum from early was the anomaly it seemed to be. Give him a game back in the saddle without any drops, and it’ll be full steam ahead.
As a wide receiver though, things look muddled. The starting trio of WR Brandin Cooks, WR Robert Woods and WR Cooper Kupp seems set in stone. WR Josh Reynolds (roster preview) looms as the potential WR4 with plenty of fan support given his showing in the 2017 preseason. I’m not sure how sincere of a battle there is for Cooper here thereafter. WR Mike Thomas (roster preview) is in the bigger roster battle with the new depth.
Fred Brown (roster preview), Steven Mitchell, Jr. (roster preview), Ricky Jeune (roster preview) and LaQuvionte Gonzalez (roster preview) are all fighting for space that Thomas might offer. Cooper, who will hold a spot for his return skills, will be the last WR option. But throw in the spot vacated by Austin who was traded to the Dallas Cowboys during the 2018 NFL Draft and either you’re adding a wideout with Thomas or putting two new names on the unit.
I don’t so much see any real roster battle for Cooper as much as a significant effect on his potential snaps on offense based on how the wide receiver roster battle plays out among the other candidates in training camp and throughout the preseason.
In all sincerity? If we all expect the Rams to be back in the postseason (and I think we do) and we all expect Cooper to be the return man in 2018 (and I think we do), the real expectation comes in January when we all expect him not to drop the ball (and I sure as shit hope we do).
Chances of Making Final Roster (9.5/10)
I’m leaving a sliver of a chance that the Rams look at the few spots they have to work with on the 53-man roster beyond the core starters and decide that they can get return value elsewhere on top of other contributions unlike Cooper who may just be strictly a return man in 2018.
But it’s a small sliver.
I expect the Pharoh to be out there for kickoffs and punts in 2018.
And I’m hoping for a performance that puts the nightmare ending to 2017 behind him once and for all.