When it comes to the Los Angeles Rams coaching staff since Sean McVay took over in 2017, the one thing you can count on is change. You need all your fingers and toes to keep track of the comings and goings, but there has been one constant. Amidst all that churn on the Rams staff stands Eric Yarber, the L.A. receivers coach who’s been along side McVay since Day 1 and this Sunday stands by McVay as he goes for win 69, second best in Rams all-time history.
Not part of the Rams younger generation of coaches, Yarber had been toiling at the coaching craft since 1996 and brought over 20 years experience in the game with him. All told, he has been teaching, mentoring, cajoling, and chewing ass on young men for 28 seasons. All but one on the offensive side of the ball.
Yarber didn’t have to travel far when he got the call to join L.A. in 2017. He was just a few miles northwest at UCLA, where he had handled the Bruins wide outs since 2012. Westwood had been his seventh college stop, all here in the West. He started his coaching journey as a defensive backs coach for Idaho in 1996 and jumped back on offense, for good, with UNLV in 1997.
Long-time NFL and college coach Dennis Erickson had a huge impact on Yarber, both playing and coaching, as well as life lessons. Yarber was a small guy (5’ 8” 150 lbs.) and never played varsity football in high school (reportedly 125 lbs.). Erickson recruited him out of Los Angeles Valley College to Idaho and Yarber paid dividends by earning the Conference MVP award. Jumping forward a few years, in his final year as the Seattle Seahawks head coach, Erickson hired Yarber as an offensive quality control coach and then took him along to Oregon State, the first year (1999) as running backs coach and then settling in with receivers, where he would stay. When Erickson moved to the San Francisco 49ers top job in 2003, Yarber joined him. Their final hook up was at Arizona State from 2007 through 2009.
"If you can be loyal and a good person, you're going to go far in this profession."— Los Angeles Rams (@RamsNFL) July 4, 2023
Behind The Grind, Episode 3
The task he faced
When Yarber was hired, he stepped into an offense that, in 2016, had a whopping -123.49 expected points contributed by the passing offense. That’s not all. The Rams were last in scoring, touchdown receptions, and net yards per pass attempt, while second to last in total reception yardage, receiving yards per game, and yards gained per pass attempt.
The Jeff Fisher-led Rams ran a two tight end base offense and the wide receiver room was stocked with under-achievers Kenny Britt, Brian Quick, and Tavon Austin who combined for a catch percentage under 50. The backups were rookies, Pharoh Cooper; Bradley Marquez; Mike Thomas; and Paul McRoberts, all with no distinguished draft pedigrees. It was obviously an under-staffed room and all were gone within two seasons, except for kick returner Cooper, who lasted three.
There was much work to do and the L.A. pro player and college scouting personnel departments helped with the heavy lifting. The Rams raided the Buffalo Bills, bringing aboard free agent Robert Woods and Sammy Watkins via trade along with draftees Cooper Kupp (Round 3) and Josh Reynolds (Round 4).
The turnaround was startling. In Yarber’s first year the Rams wide receivers catch percentage went above 60 percent, up from the previous mid-40’s. And that percentage has solidly risen and sat steady at 66+ for the next six seasons.
Sean McVay’s offense went from worst to first in the NFL and Yarber’s receiving group rose to a Top 5 juggernaut after arguably being the league’s worst a year earlier. It wasn’t a matter of going pass happy, the Rams offense kept a strong presence in the run game. They did throw the ball almost 56 percent of snaps, but that was the 23rd most in the league.
How important is the receivers coach? They can all catch, right?
Yes, the Rams have had a lot of big name wide receiver talent over Yarber’s tenure. Robert Woods, Sammy Watkins, Cooper Kupp, Brandin Cooks, Odell Beckham, DeSean Jackson, Allen Robinson and Puka Nacua. Talent cuts two ways. While fans marvel at stars athleticism and playmaking abilities, there isn’t always enough footballs to go around to keep egos happy.
You would have to admit that Woods and Kupp, as good as they are, both improved on the nuances of the position under Yarber, becoming two complete wide receivers. They excel in running routes, catching, rushing, and blocking, both inline and downfield. A shame that both are under-valued because they don’t have breakaway speed. Nacua is only a rookie, but already showing those top end traits. The Rams gave up a little early on Cooks, but concussion problems will do that. Just the opposite of Woods and Kupp, Cook’s speed game overshadows his attention to detail and versatility. When you compare his career numbers to what he’s been paid, a huge value.
Watkins was a talent that never could put it together, whether it was bad luck, personal demons, or injuries. Jackson was at the end of a stellar career and wasn’t happy with his role. To his credit, instead of causing a stir, he left quietly. Robinson never quite meshed with Matthew Stafford and the 2022 injury epidemic put the whole season in a funk. In retrospect, Robinson has been trending down now for three straight seasons. Not a good signing. Beckham’s likely not in L.A. because of the timing of his injury and the Rams salary purge. He’s no longer a WR#1, but can certainly still be a weapon. Bring him back next year!
ODELL BECKHAM JR. FINDS THE ENDZONE!!— DRF Sportsbook (@DRFSportsbook) December 14, 2021
He is starting to flourish in that LA Rams offense. pic.twitter.com/PVpDyBNUfh
A better way to judge Yarber’s work might be through the supporting players. Mike Thomas, Josh Reynolds, Nsimba Webster, KhaDarel Hodge, Van Jefferson, Bennett Skowronek, Brandon Powell, Tutu Atwell, Austin Trammel, and Demarcus Robinson. While none are particularly special talent-wise, all have found a way to carve out a career.
Atwell and Robinson are both still contributing. Atwell has been head-and-shoulders better than his first two seasons. He offers the Rams a true speed/deep threat. L.A. needs to get him 5-7 touches/targets per game, every game. Although Robinson has a journeyman-like past, he offers a veteran savvy to the WR#3 role. Understands defenses, shows good hands, and still has enough burst to separate. The two are very complimentary in use, but have different size, speed, and styles that opposing defenses must consider.
Thomas, Webster, and Hodge are still knocking around the NFL. Reynolds has been getting 10 starts a year since leaving L.A. Powell resurrected his career, going from well-traveled return man to a spot starter who can catch from the slot as well as return kicks. Skowronek is a versatile piece that can play outside, in the slot, on the wing, or out of the backfield. Trammel is an effort guy, willing to do the dirty work and has ground out 375 offensive and special teams snaps over two years.
There is more to unit coaching than running drills, installing game plans, and digesting film for review. Yarber wants efficiency of movement, know where you’re going to go and make every rep look the same coming off the line. Each play a hand of poker, each move identical, limiting possible tells. Make the defense protect against the deep pass, push them vertically and break off of that.
That’s what scares a DB (defensive back) the most, (a receiver) going by him. Something that’s going to strike up the band and get the fans going.
Yarber has said in the past that he likes to build a well-rounded unit with both varied sizes and skill sets. Some big, some on the smaller side. Receivers that excel running option routes and others that run precise timing routes. You need to have the long speed to stretch opposing defenses vertically, while quicker players can dart around under umbrella zones.
In a video confererence before Super Bowl LVI, Yarber spoke about the traits he covets in the wide receiver room.
They don’t care about who gets the credit. They are not insecure about their talents, their secure in what they know. All they want to do is just win… (and) don’t care how we win, if they catch two passes or 10 passes. They don’t care if they have to block linebackers, safeties or corners, they’re just trying to do what it takes to win…not just do it one time but do it over and over and over. Give that all for six or seven seconds, come back to the huddle, and go do it again...if someone flips the film on and views them for the very first time, what would the say about their effort? That’s how to play the game.
In the near future, the wide receiver room is hitting on all cylinders and looks strong as the Rams grasp at the playoffs. All individuals appear healthy after last Thursday’s win over the New Orleans Saints proffered a couple extra days of rest. How Yarber handles the rotation between Tutu Atwell, now that he’s fully recovered from his concussion, and Demarcus Robinson appears to be the toughest decision.
Looking forward to next year, only Demarcus Robinson and Austin Trammel are not under contract and both could be retained at a fair cost should the Rams decide to. But it won’t be long before the Rams have to start thinking about life after Cooper Kupp, he’s past that 30 years-old threshold where most wide receivers begin a downward trend. Even if it’s just as not being the primary receiver, fans must be ready for the torch to be passed.
One wide receiver from the 2024 NFL Draft who has reportedly piqued the Rams interest and fits well into their and Yarber’s protocols is Emeka Egbuka of Ohio State. Egbuka is generally considered a late Round 1 prospect. Whether the Rams play it close to the vest and return this current group or takes a swing at new playmaker in the off season, Eric Yarber, the Rams longest-tenured assistant coach will be there to polish the edges.