Los Angeles Rams: Tyler Higbee’s 2019, Reality or Just an Illusion?

Los Angeles Rams tight end Tyler Higbee went on a historical run to end 2019. Was it a sign of what’s to come or were those five games just an illusion?

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For three and a half years the Los Angeles Rams waited for tight end Tyler Higbee to break out. Finally, in Week 13 last season, it finally happened. And again in Week 14, 15, 16, and 17. For five straight weeks, Higbee lit it up on the football field. The Rams tight end caught seven of eight passes against the Cardinals for 107 yards. That started a five-game stretch in which he caught 43 balls for 522 yards.

A deeper look into that stretch would find that during those five games, the Rams played the 30th, 31st, and 32nd ranked defenses when it came to defending the tight end. The Arizona Cardinals, Dallas Cowboys, and Seattle Seahawks all gave up more receptions and more yards to tight ends than any other team in the NFL last season. However, Higbee’s game against the 49ers who ranked 10th against the TE last season would say the Rams made a point to make the fourth year tight end more involved in the offense.

A Hot Streak Unlike Any Other

In other words, over 70% of Higbee’s 2019 production came in the final five weeks against the bottom three teams at defending the tight end. That’s not to say it wasn’t impressive. In fact, it was historical. Higbee became the only tight end since the 1970 merger to record seven or more catches with 100 or more yards in four straight games.

However, professional athletes ‘get hot’.

Nick Foles threw 27 touchdowns to two interceptions back in 2013 and then got ‘hot’ again to lead the Philadelphia Eagles to a Super Bowl championship despite overall being considered an average quarterback. Derek Anderson who had a decent career as a backup made a Pro Bowl in 2007. Wide receiver Laurent Robinson had 800 yards with the Cowboys in 2011 and barely surpassed 250 the next season. Another tight end in Julius Thomas had 788 yards in 2013 with the help of four games with more than 50 yards. He didn’t eclipse the 500 yard mark the rest of his career. Gary Barnidge had one good year with the Browns.

It doesn’t just happen in the NFL either. Jeremy Lin created “Linsanity” in 2011 after averaging 22.5 points and 8.7 assists over a 12 game stretch. Tennis and golf players get hot and go on to win majors. Jonathan Quick led the Los Angeles Kings to one of the most dominant and improbable postseason runs in NHL history as he went on to be one of the league’s best goalies.

Teams get hot all the time in every sport. Most notably the St. Louis Blues at the end of the 2019 NHL season or the 2012 Baltimore Ravens who both went on to win championships. Sometimes things just click and with the right combination, things just tend to go right.

That’s not to say this is what happened in the situation of the Los Angeles Rams Higbee, but it’s also a possibility that can’t be ruled out.

Career To Date

Drafted in the fourth round of the 2016 NFL Draft by the Los Angeles Rams, Higbee was seen as a potential day three steal. The former Western Kentucky tight end missed five games in his senior season due to a knee injury and because of that, he decided to skip the Senior Bowl and not participate in drills at the combine. Then, right before the draft, Higbee got in an altercation and was charged with assault. Combine an injury and legal trouble, and Higbee is honestly lucky that he was drafted at all.

As a rookie in 2016, Higbee caught just 11 passes on 29 targets for an abysmal 37.9% catch rate. That number ranked last among all tight ends with more than 25 targets.  His 2.9 yards per target also ranked last.

When it comes to Tyler Higbee, every year he’s been in the league, he’s gotten better. That’s despite never being considered the Rams’ top tight end. Higbee improved his catch percentage to 55.6% in 2017 and up again to 70.6% in 2018. Despite having less yards in 2018, Higbee recorded a full two yards more per target.

That number jumped all the way to 77% last season which ranked fifth-overall for tight ends while catching 73.68% of balls in the red zone which ranked fourth overall in the NFL.

In 2017, Higbee doubled his reception total to 25 which was up from 11 and had 295 and 292 yards respectively in his second and third seasons. Even taking away his five game historic stretch, the Rams tight end was on pace for a career-high 43 receptions for 353 yards.

After the 2018 season, the Rams paid Higbee what equated to a top-10 tight end in the NFL which seemed like an overpay initially.

Football Outsiders had a good tight end metric called Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement. This gives the value of the performance on plays where this TE caught the ball, compared to a replacement-level TE in the same game situations and then translated into yardage.

Using this analytical metric, Higbee ranked last (-109) in 2016, 36th(-9) in 2017, and finished 16th (54) in 2018.

Despite that improvement, the Rams tight end had only two games in his career with over 50 yards and only one game with more than five receptions. That trend continued into 2019 before Higbee caught 43 balls for 522 yards, which is more than  one-third of his career numbers, during a five game stretch.

During that stretch, Higbee went from averaging 2.5 receptions on four targets with a game-high of 22 yards to averaging 8.6 receptions on 11.2 targets with a game-high 116 yards. After not hitting the 100-yard mark once in his career, the former fouther-rounder did so in four consecutive games.

Tight Ends Slow To Develop.

When it comes to the tight end position, it’s said that it takes a few years to develop. The biggest example is Antonio Gates, a future Hall of Fame player, who didn’t break 1,000 yards until years three and tripled his receiving yardage from year one to year two.

When tight ends break out, it is typically done by year three. Tyler Higbee had 85 yards as a rookie with the Los Angeles Rams, before totalling 295 and 292 yards in his second and third years.

Looking at the notable first and second round tight ends from 2010-2017 and their productions from year one, two, and three

  1. Jermaine Gresham – CIN – 471 – 576 – 737
  2. Rob Gronkowski – NE – 546 – 1327 – 790
  3. Kyle Rudolph – MIN – 249 – 493 – 313
  4. Lance Kendricks – STL – 352 – 519 – 258
  5. Coby Fleener – IND – 281 – 608 – 774
  6. Tyler Eiftert – CIN – 445 – 37 – 615
  7. Zach Ertz – PHI – 469 – 702- 853
  8. Vance McDonald – PIT – 119- 30 – 326
  9. Eric Ebron – DET – 248 – 537 – 711
  10. Hunter Henry – SD – 478 – 579 – 652
  11. OJ Howard – TB – 432 – 565 – 459
  12. Evan Engram – NYG – 722 – 577 – 467
  13. David Njoku – CLE – 386 – 639 – 41

However, HIgbee was not a first or second round tight end. Going back to 2010, here are the career paths in the first four years of notable tight ends drafted in the fourth round or later from 2010-2016:

  1. Dennis Pitta – BAL – 1 – 405- 669 – 169
  2. Julius Thomas – DEN – 5 – 0 – 788 – 489
  3. Charles Clay – MIA – 233 – 212- 759 – 605
  4. Luke Wilson – SEA – 272 – 362 – 213 – 129
  5. Ryan Griffin – NYJ – 244 – 91 – 251 – 442
  6. Richard Rogers – GB – 225 – 510 – 271 – 160
  7. CJ Uzomah – CIN – 4 – 234 – 92 – 439
  8. Tyler Higbee – LAR – 85 – 295 – 292 – 734

Tyler Higbee’s five game stretch at the end of the 2019 season is already an outlier and his 2019 numbers are among the best for any day three tight end from 2010-2016. In fact, the Rams’ tight end’s 734 yards are the third-most for a tight end in that period.

What stands out about this group is that none of them went on to have dominant careers. Charles Clay never broke 700 yards again, but did manage five straight years with 500 or more yards. Julius Thomas never broke 500 yards again as did Richard Rogers and Dennis Pitta.

When looking at HIgbee, his career path seems very similar to someone like Clay which is completely fine. If Higbee manages 500+ yards this season, that is a win.

Where This Leaves Higbee

Higbee’s pace of 137 receptions and 1670 yards is an unrealistic expectation. It can’t be forgotten and shouldn’t be left out that four of his five most successful games as a pro came against teams that would have ranked in the bottom-10 in tight end receptions since 2015.

Teams with most tight end receptions allowed since 2015:

  1. 2016 Redskins – 114
  2. 2016 Cowboys – 113
  3. 2018 Colts – 106
  4. 2019 Cowboys – 104
  5. 2016 Benglas  – 103
  6. 2018 Browns – 100
  7. 2015 Bengals – 100
  8. 2019 Seahawks – 97
  9. 2016 Browns – 97
  10. 2019 Cardinals – 96
  11. 2015 Saints – 96

What does make Higbee different  is his insane catch percentage that has improved to nearly 80% from last season. On top of that his DYAR in 2019 jumped to 11th overall. That’s not something that he shares with the other day three tight ends. While it’s typically unlikely for fourth-round tight ends to have more than one or two good seasons, Higbee could see a similar career jump as Kyle Rudolph. The Vikings tight end didn’t eclipse 500 yards until 2016 and then jumped from 34 in DYAR to 9.

What he does have going for him is his obvious connection with Goff as well as him seemingly being the team’s tight end of the future. The teams just signed him to a contract extention and drafted Brycen Hopkins to seemingly replace Gerald Everett.

It’s impossible to determine if Higbee’s five game sample with become the norm or if he’ll jump back to what fans saw in the first 48 games of his career. Is he Gary Barnidge or Kyle Rudolph? It’s that consistency that fans will be looking for and it’s only a matter of time before we find out.

 

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