After Thursday’s joint practice against the Las Vegas Raiders, head coach Sean McVay was asked about how the L.A. Rams’ tight ends were doing so far and McVay made a point to call fourth-year tight end Brycen Hopkins a “bright spot” in training camp. That’s a good thing. It’s not a bad thing.
If fans were polled whether they would like a player to get a positive endorsement or a negative criticism of a Rams player, surely “positive” would win in a landslide.
But what’s being missed in most reports about McVay’s ‘bright spot’ is exactly which spot Brycen Hopkins has on the L.A. Rams. For an offense that hasn’t run 12 personnel since Gerald Everett left as a free agent in 2021, for a team that still has Tyler Higbee, for a roster that supposedly has six or seven receivers who they really like, and for a fourth-year tight end who has played 234 snaps in three years...where is the room for Brycen Hopkins before he too becomes a free agent in 2024?
"If you said, 'What's one of the bright spots of Training Camp?' Brycen Hopkins." pic.twitter.com/lXHvZ0M0ke— Los Angeles Rams (@RamsNFL) August 17, 2023
If I were to ask you, “Who is your favorite player who didn’t do anything during his first three years in the NFL?” what answer would you give?
There is perhaps nothing more unlikely in the sport than examples of drafted players who basically did not see the field for three years and then became key starters or rotational pieces used on a regular basis. To give you a case of a recent “success story” in that regard, the Colts picked Parris Campbell in the second round of the 2019 NFL Draft and he had 360 yards over his first three seasons, only getting about 450 snaps.
Campbell then had 623 yards last year and is now a member of the Giants, fighting for a job.
But Campbell also only played in 15 games and dealt with numerous injuries. He’s still one of the only success stories of any regard that I could find in the last 15 years.
Now compare that to Hopkins, who came into the NFL as a tight end expected to be somewhat polished after being raised in an NFL family with an experienced offensive tackle for a father and 130 catches for 1,945 yards through five years at Purdue. He played in 10 games over his first two seasons in the NFL, not because he was hurt, and he caught one pass for nine yards over 61 snaps.
Hopkins then played in 14 games last year, playing 173 snaps and catching seven passes for 109 yards.
So for Brycen Hopkins to become a regular on the Rams, first he has to achieve one of the most unbelievable career turnarounds in NFL history. To go from being unable to see the field for three years to now being a key part of the offense.
Next, there has to be some reason for McVay to expect to either play a second tight end regularly or to take Tyler Higbee off of the field.
In 2021, Kendall Blanton was second on the team in tight end snaps with 148 (13.6% of the total snaps), followed by Johnny Mundt at 100 snaps. In 2022, Higbee led the position with 888 snaps, followed by Hopkins at 173 snaps.
As noted by Blaine Grisak at the end of last season after a dominant offensive performance against the Broncos, then again by JB Scott ahead of free agency, the Rams were using more 12 personnel towards the end of the season and seemed to have more success when they did, especially on the ground. Given L.A.’s weaknesses on the offensive line and desire to feed more of the offense through Cam Akers, using a second tight end more often could be in the cards for McVay’s Rams.
Perhaps this will mean more playing time for Hopkins, even if it doesn’t mean more targets or usage in the passing game.
However, L.A. still made sure to acquire Hunter Long from the Dolphins in the Jalen Ramsey trade and they still made sure to draft Davis Allen in the fifth round. That gave the Rams four tight ends going into camp that were expected to make the roster, but Long and Davis haven’t been healthy enough to participate as McVay would have liked and that has opened the door for Hopkins to redeem himself.
But he does still need to redeem himself and whatever made it so difficult for Sean McVay to give him chances in 2020, 2021, and 2022. Hopkins has had five years to work it out at the Big Ten level, and is now in his fourth year of trying to figure it out at the NFL level, how many times in the past has he been motivated to become a player who won’t be denied playing time? What went wrong those times?
And if he isn’t denied playing time in 2023, which player(s) are being removed from the field in order to play Brycen Hopkins? Higbee? Van Jefferson? Puka Nacua?
You can’t add a tight end to the field without typically taking a receiver off of it, so who is losing playing time to give Hopkins more playing time? And I’ll ask again: Who is your favorite player who couldn’t get playing time for three years to start his career?
It’s good news that Brycen Hopkins isn’t having a bad training camp, just as it was good news that Allen Robinson and Tutu Atwell were having incredible training camps in 2022. I’ll just wait to evaluate the breakout season until the season breaks out.