In last week’s game against the Cleveland Browns, Los Angeles Rams tight end, Tyler Higbee suffered what looked to be a head injury. Higbee was cleared by the ‘unaffiliated medical personnel’ for a concussion but was unable to return to the game.
Heading into the Rams game against the Ravens this week, Higbee missed two of the three days of practice due to a neck injury and Rams head coach Sean McVay announced that Higbee’s status is ‘doubtful’ to play this Sunday.
Tyler Higbee‘s Significance in the Rams Offense
Higbee has been a mainstay of the Rams offense for years. Since 2020 he has played 86% of all offensive snaps for the team. Furthermore, he just received a 2-year contract extension earlier this season. So Higbee has been ‘the guy’ at tight end for the Rams and will be for the foreseeable future.
Of course, this poses a very obvious question now that it’s unlikely that Tyler Higbee will start. Who will get his playing time?
Since 2020, the Rams have relied solely on Higbee more and more. In 2020, Gerald Everett and Johnny Mundt played 57 and 11 percent snaps respectively. In 2021, no tight end played more than 14 percent of the offensive snaps (Kendall Blanton played 13.6%) In 2022, Brycen Hopkins played 17 percent. And this season, Hopkins, Hunter Long, and Davis Allen have combined to play 18 percent of offensive snaps.
Who Can Replace Higbee?
After Tyler Higbee was injured in the third quarter last week it was Hunter Long that played out the rest of the game. But Brycen Hopkins has been the Rams tight end with the most experience. Although it should be pointed out that this ‘most experienced tight end’ title amounts to 15 catches for 196 yards on 303 total snaps in four seasons with the team.
The case should be made that Hopkins is being overlooked as a viable replacement for Higbee. Of Hopkin’s 20 career targets, 10 of those have gone for first downs. Three of those first downs came in Super Bowl LVI. (This was the last game that Tyler Higbee missed due to injury.) And two of Hopkin’s first downs came on 3rd downs under the brightest lights of his young career. Hopkins caught four total passes for 47 yards in the Super Bowl. Hopkins also has zero drops in his career.
As a tight end in Sean McVay’s 11 personnel, blocking is tantamount to being a pass catcher. And that is where Hopkins has struggled to meet expectations. But Davis Allen and Hunter Long haven’t made much of a case in this arena either.
What will be likely is to see an uptick in Ben Skowronek’s usage in what is colloquially referred to as McVay’s 11.5 personnel packages. These plays, initially run by Robert Woods, put a receiver in the position of a lead blocker whether it be in gap rushing plays or bubble screen and jet sweeps. Essentially acting as a fullback. With the 2023 iteration of the Rams, Puka Nacua is the go-to, but with Tyler Higbee down another tough blocking WR will be needed. That’s where Skowronek comes in.
Skowronek’s skill set in this area was put on display in 2022 when the Rams offensive line combusted with injuries and the offense needed SOMEONE to block. McVay lined Skowronek in the backfield as an actual fullback. The Rams were able to generate several explosive plays from this alignment.
Skowronek also saw an uptick in his snap count last week, in part due to Higbee’s exit.
Gameplan Without Tyler Higbee
It can be litigated that the Rams have mishandled the tight end depth behind Higbee, but that is a conversation for another day. This week the Rams are faced with the Ravens and will have to figure out how to replace him.
No one player on the Rams roster can fill Tyler Higbee’s role, but Brycen Hopkins deserves the chance to start based on his production and edge in experience over Hunter Long and Davis Allen. There will be some rotation of all three in this game, but the Rams offense is predicated on running different plays out of the same concepts. After long last the Rams have finally been able to get back to rotating a pass-catching TE and a blocking tight end erodes that. That is where Ben Skowronek can be used to layer on protection.