The last time that Brycen Hopkins had more than two snaps in a regular season game as a tight end was November 30, 2019. As a member of the Purdue Boilermakers, Hopkins was arguably the most dominant presence on the field, catching eight passes for 142 yards and two touchdowns in a 44-41 overtime loss to Indiana.
A week earlier against Wisconsin, Hopkins caught eight passes for 127 yards and two touchdowns. In his final seven college games, Brycen Hopkins caught 47 passes for 625 yards and four touchdowns.
Nearly two years later, why hasn’t Hopkins managed to fill any of the vacant tight end roles for the Los Angeles Rams?
In this week’s survey for Rams fans (Go Vote Here), the question that has split fans the most is about the conspicuous absence of Hopkins through the first year and a half of his NFL career. The question:
How concerned are you about TE Brycen Hopkins, a healthy scratch in 20 of a possible 25 games?
On a 1-8 scale, 1 being the least concerned:
- 14.8% voted “8”
- 13.4% voted “1”
- 14.4% voted “5”
- 14.4% voted “4”
All sides of the spectrum are covered, and 2, 3, and 6 aren’t far behind either.
First let’s talk about tight ends in general, and then let’s talk about Brycen Hopkins specifically.
In general, tight ends take longer to develop at the next level
As Jaguars tight end Dan Arnold said earlier this year when he was a member of the Panthers (Arnold was involved in a trade of C.J. Henderson), the tight end is the second-most difficult position in football to master, next to QB:
“I think the biggest thing was ‘Holy crap, there’s a lot of information to know,’” Arnold said of his rookie year. “Just the nature of the position, the protections, we’re in the run game and also the route concepts. There’s just a lot of information you have to know.
“But that’s just the first step in the mastery of it is getting all that stuff down, because you can’t really go and succeed at tight end unless you know what you’re doing. You can get lucky a couple times and make a couple of plays here and there. But for the most part, you have to be a smart football player, know what’s going on, be able to read defenses.
“Next to quarterback, it’s maybe the most intricate position. For me, that was the toughest thing. Since I played receiver in college, it was an ABC of offense, compared to what I had done.”
We underestimate two aspects of the tight end position:
- A tight end has to be both an offensive lineman and a wide receiver
- A 2021 tight end is wholly different than a 2011 different and exponentially different than a 2001 tight end; the position has changed dramatically over the decades and that fluidity means that there is a lot more guesswork with picking tight ends in the draft...coaches don’t always know what they’re looking for so they stick to what they know: divine physical traits.
Hence why so many of the best tight ends were mid-to-late round picks and undrafted, while first round busts are as much of a concern at that position as at quarterback; in 2017, O.J. Howard, Evan Engram, and David Njoku went in the top-30, while Gerald Everett and Adam Shaheen went in the second round.
George Kittle was pick 146.
For some, development doesn’t take one or two years, but five or six. Or they just need to wait that long for the right system to find them: 28-year-old C.J. Uzomah has caught 25 of 28 passes this year for 313 yards and five touchdowns in nine games with the Bengals. The seventh-year tight end, a fifth round pick in 2015, is enjoying the breakout campaign many had expected for years.
Of last year’s tight ends who were drafted, second round pick Cole Kmet (527 yards), third rounder Adam Trautman (322), and fourth rounder Harrison Bryant (381) have eclipsed 300 career yards, while Josiah Deguara, Albert Okwuegbunam, Colby Parkinson, and Charlie Woerner have undoubtedly carved out offensive roles with their franchises.
Going back a year earlier to the 2019 NFL Draft, there are a number of tight ends who have minor to major roles with their teams already: T.J. Hockenson, Noah Fant, Irv Smith Jr, Drew Sample, Dawson Knox, Trevon Wesco, Foster Moreau, Kaden Smith, Jace Sternberger.
Is it reasonable to say that the tight end position is difficult, especially at the NFL level? Yes.
Is it reasonable to say that many drafted tight ends have roles on their teams in their first two years, if not as a rookie? Also yes.
On Brycen Hopkins specifically
Hopkins was only a two or three-star recruit coming out of Ensworth High School in Nashville, Tennessee, but Purdue was far from a bad offer in 2015. Hopkins debuted in 2016 and was essentially a starting tight end for three years. As a senior in 2019, he caught 61 passes for 830 yards and seven touchdowns. He was 23 years old at the time of the draft, older than many other prospects.
Since his final career game though, Brycen Hopkins unfortunately:
- Did not have a 2020 preseason
- Played two offensive snaps as a rookie
- Was a healthy scratch in 11 of 16 games
- Was consistently thought to be in a training camp competition against former undrafted free agent Kendall Blanton in 2021
- Caught five passes for 50 yards over three preseason games
- Has been a healthy scratch in all nine games this season, making it 20 of 25 possible games over one and a half years
This is not to be tough on Hopkins or to criticize the decision to draft him, it is only an observation that any reasonable person could make: It is unusual that Brycen Hopkins hasn’t been able to get an offensive snap even though Gerald Everett left in the offseason, then blocking tight end Johnny Mundt went on injured reserve.
You could reasonably infer that this means that Hopkins is neither ready to help as a receiving tight end or ready to help as a blocking tight end and certainly couldn’t fill in for Tyler Higbee.
And when the team did need help at tight end this season, Sean McVay called up Blanton from the practice squad. Blanton, an undrafted free agent in 2019 who turns 26 today, has now played in 25 offensive snaps over the last three weeks.
The other interesting open-ended question is how the season-ending injury to Jacob Harris will reveal the team’s feelings on Hopkins. Even if Harris wasn’t going to play any tight end snaps this year, he was technically a tight end on the roster who was regularly playing on special teams. But that too has not been a help to Hopkins; obviously he hasn’t played on special teams this year, and as a rookie he made an appearance on 50 special teams snaps over five games.
No need for the team to panic now
With the injury to Johnny Mundt and the loss of Jacob Harris, there has got to be value in having Brycen Hopkins stashed on the roster. At this point it seems like if anything happened to Higbee, that Kendall Blanton would be asked to step up first, but it’s not as though the Rams could find a better emergency option on the outside than what they already have in Hopkins.
It’s just unusual that based on his college experience, his draft status (remember: Tyler Higbee was a fourth round pick who was immediately starting during his second and McVay’s first season), and the team’s recent needs at tight end that Hopkins hasn’t been called upon even once. McVay noted Hopkins as an option when Mundt was injured, but clearly something is holding him back.
What is it and how bad is it? That seems to be a well-kept secret.
Don’t forget: survey for Rams fans (Go Vote Here)