It came as a surprise to many when, just prior to the Los Angeles Rams season opener, the team announced they were finalizing an extension with tight end Tyler Higbee that would pay him $31m over four years, locking him up through 2023. Perhaps it was the initial rumors that he’d be getting paid “Top 10” money (at the position) that were more startling.
To be fair, Higbee has been good, not great, since being drafted by the Rams in 2016. He’s made a few splash plays here and there, but certainly doesn’t put up gaudy numbers as a pass-catcher and has yet to eclipse 300 yards receiving in a single season since entering the league. That said, he’s proven to be a reliable contributor in the Rams’ offense, offers some versatility, and has a strong rapport with QB Jared Goff.
But, as Rams Head Coach Sean McVay put it on Wednesday, Higbee is a “very, very important piece” of their offense. Unfortunately, that piece might not be available in Week 3 as Higbee is considered day-to-day with a chest injury that forced him out of last week’s matchup against the New Orleans Saints, and has kept him sidelined during practice this week.
“I think it’s a good question. I think we really are taking it day-by-day, so we’ll find out Sunday at 8 p.m,” McVay said when asked about his availability against the Cleveland Browns in the Rams first primetime game of the 2019 season.
If Higbee is unable to go, third year tight end Gerald Everett will see a spike in snaps. Everett - McVay’s very first draft pick as a head coach (2017) - has firmly been planted in the TE2 spot on the depth chart, finishing his rookie campaign with 28.8% of snaps while seeing a slight increase (to 34.4%) in 2018. Higbee was on the field for over 70% of plays in both years, giving credence to just how integral McVay feels he is.
But McVay contends that “not much” changes with the tight end role on Sunday if Higbee is deemed inactive.
Tight ends coach Wes Phillips is coaching Gerald up to be able to do all the things that you’ve seen Tyler do in some of those early down and distances. We’ve seen Gerald play in a lot of those early downs as well, but then also be a key contributor in some of our known passing situations. Gerald is more than capable of doing those types of things, as is Johnny Mundt – if Tyler’s down, then he’ll be up.
I think to many, this was the year that Everett had a breakout season. With two full seasons under his belt, and ample time to adapt to life in the pros, he’d finally supplant Higbee as the team’s starter. The consensus, up to this point, has been that it hasn’t happened because Higbee is the superior blocking tight end — and McVay, without actually saying it, hints that Everett is still working to improve upon those early down skills.
I suppose the pressing questions are: What’s taking so long? Is Tight Ends Coach Wes Phillips working feverishly this week in order to get Gerald ready to be an every-down tight end, or is he referencing the entire body of work? When does Everett become the more well-rounded tight end and take the reins as the team’s starter? Because we’re beyond the halfway point of his rookie deal, he’s not the TE1, there’s not much evidence to indicate he’s claiming the role, and the clock is ticking.
None of this is meant to be a knock on Everett, or suggest he can’t or won’t take a starting role at some point. He’s proven he’s a threat as a receiver. But the position obviously requires more, and it seems he’s still got to make improvements to his game if he hopes to see more playing time — which should be the expectation for a second round draft pick in year three...right?
Much discussion was had this offseason regarding McVay potentially utilizing more two-TE sets to get Everett more involved. It’s not out of the realm of possibility, but early signs point to the Rams sticking heavily with 11-personnel — a grouping they’ve lined up in more than any other team in the NFL over the last two seasons. In Week 1, starting wideouts Robert Woods, Brandin Cooks, and Cooper Kupp all played in 90% (+) of plays. And last week, each saw their percentages increase to 99%, 97%, and 94%, respectively. If you can justify taking one of them off the field for a second tight end, then I suppose running “12” sounds more feasible. But does that actually sound more feasible?
The Rams just gave Tyler Higbee a four-year extension, so he’s not going anywhere. It appears that if Everett wants an increased role in this offense, he’s going to have to earn it by becoming a more well-rounded tight end that can do it all...and possibly prove that he can do it all better than Higbee.
The window of opportunity may be wide open for Gerald Everett this Sunday night, and in a primetime matchup he’ll potentially have the ability to put it all on display for his coaches and the fans. McVay sounds confident that Everett is up to the task, so it’s a great opportunity for us all to see if, as his coach suggests, he really is “more than capable” of effectively executing all the responsibilities demanded from a starting tight end.