Each week during the 2021 season, we’ll examine our NFL draft steal of the week — a younger player whose NFL success has surpassed where he was drafted. We’ll try to look back at the why and how of where they were selected and what we thought of that prospect prior to the draft.
Los Angeles Rams
6-foot-2, 204 pounds
2017 NFL draft: Round 3, No. 69 overall
Cooper Kupp has played in 60 NFL games with the Rams. Injuries have robbed him of 10 games along the way. But in his first five seasons, believe it or not, he’s reaching statistical marks that some of the best ever to play the position could only dream of.
Here are some of the NFL’s most productive receivers since the 1970 merger, over their first career 60 games (with the leaders in each category in bold):
Odell Beckham Jr.
Kupp’s totals over his first 60 games hold up extraordinarily well amid this elite company. His 475 targets rank 33rd over that span (target data only goes back to 1992). But Kupp’s 334 receptions place him eighth overall on the list. His 4,223 receiving yards land him at No. 21. His receiving average of 12.6 only sits at 64th overall. But his 31 touchdowns have Kupp tied for 21st.
These are some of the finest receivers of this generation, the last one or any one in history. Kupp has a seat at this exalted table.
The start of his 2021 season has helped place him there. Kupp is first in targets (680; tied for first in receptions (46); second in receiving yards (653, which is 15 behind leader Davante Adams); and first in TD catches (seven).
Moss in 2007 is the only other player in league history with more than 600 yards and seven TDs in their first six games of a season. That’s the year he scored 23 touchdowns and had 1,493 receiving yards for the New England Patriots.
And get this: With a 17-game regular season, Kupp currently is on pace for 131 catches, 1,850 yards and 20 touchdowns. All this for a receiver who played FCS-level college football, on a red field in front of an average of 8,435 fans per game his senior season.
I spoke with Rice — another small-college legend — and asked him what it took to be a truly great receiver. As in, what traits other than size, quickness and speed allow pass-catchers to be transcendent at their position.
In part, Rice said: “I think they have to have no fear. They have to be willing to make those tough catches … and that desire to get into the end zone. I was one of those guys. I didn’t just want to make a catch and go down. … I wanted to score every time I touched the football. Running good routes and having the attitude of, ‘Hey, this ball in the air is my ball to come down with.’
“It’s that desire to be the best. I never felt like I was the best. I felt like I had to prove it to my teammates every single practice and game. I never got complacent. That’s what separates (the good receivers from the great ones).”
Rice very well could have been talking about Kupp. His extreme competitiveness, craftsmanship and yards-after-catch ability have made him one of the NFL’s most productive receivers. So how did he last until the third round of the 2017 NFL draft? We look back at Kupp coming out as a prospect.
Why did Cooper Kupp slip in the draft?
Coming from Eastern Washington, Kupp faced questions about his level of competition. Despite being extremely productive for the Eagles, catching an extraordinary 428 passes for 6,464 yards and 73 TDs in 52 college games, that stigma still existed.
And despite Kupp showing he was a clear standout at the Senior Bowl, routinely beating Power Five DBs in practice drills there daily, there were still doubters.
Some marginal NFL combine workouts — relatively ordinary numbers in the 40-yard dash (4.62 seconds), broad jump (116 inches) and high jump (31) — didn’t help matters. Never mind that Kupp placed in the top 20% all time in the 3-cone drill (6.75 seconds) and 20-yard shuttle (4.08). Or that he was, you know, excellent at catching footballs.
Kupp’s slide was not precipitous. He fell to pick No. 69, the fifth overall selection in Round 3 that year. Kupp was the seventh wideout selected. A few who were picked before him (Corey Davis, Mike Williams, Curtis Samuel and JuJu Smith-Schuster) have had productive careers so far. Others (John Ross and Zay Jones) have not.
But Kupp leads all of them in catches, yards and TDs, despite playing fewer games than most of them.
How we viewed Kupp as a prospect
Kupp landed at No. 66 overall on our final 2017 NFL draft rankings — remarkably close to his final landing spot. However, that doesn’t mean we were entirely accurate on his assessment.
From our skinnies on the Nos. 51-100 prospects:
(Kupp is) extremely reliable and driven short-area slot receiver with limited long speed and upside.
Well, no. With an ADOT (average depth of target) of 8.9 yards, Kupp isn’t exactly what we’d classify as a deep threat. The NFL’s leaders in this department are all north of the 14-yard mark. But that’s not to say that Kupp can’t separate readily or be a big yards-after-catch threat.
We tend to think of intermediate and deep threats as burners, but that isn’t always the case, and Kupp is living proof. His timed speed is considered well below average for the position, and yet with precise route running, outstanding short-area quickness and the ability to catch the ball without gearing down, Kupp is able to be a big-play weapon in the Rams’ expanded offense.
Perhaps we should have factored in Kupp’s excellent bloodlines more. His grandfather, Jake Kupp, was a quality guard for 13 years, mostly with the Cowboys and Saints. His father, quarterback Craig Kupp, was the 135th overall pick in the 1990 NFL draft.
We also could have put more weight into Kupp’s outstanding performances on the road vs. Power-5 teams such as Washington in 2014 (eight catches, 145 yards, three TDs against a Huskies defense featuring Marcus Peters, Budda Baker, Kevin King and Sidney Jones); Oregon in 2015 (15 catches, 246 yards, three TDs); and Washington State in 2016 (12 catches, 206 yards, three TDs).
And perhaps we should have viewed Kupp’s Senior Bowl dominance, in light of his video-game college production, and seen that he was more than just your garden-variety slot receiver.
The Rams clearly noticed. As former scouting director (and now Lions GM) Brad Holmes told us in 2019, “At the Senior Bowl, [Kupp] just looked like a different player. It looked like he was different than everybody else on the field. He just went through the process, went to the combine, and he doesn’t run really fast. But it was like, every time you saw him play football with shoulder pads and a helmet, he was great.”
Injuries aside, Kupp has an extremely bright outlook for the next several years. Fumbles (three in 2019) have been an issue in the past, but he’s had only one over his past 22 games.
Pairing with QB Matthew Stafford has helped elevate Kupp’s game even more, as the two have developed an unmistakable chemistry.
With Jared Goff and other Rams quarterbacks prior to 2021, Kupp averaged 5.3 receptions (on 7.5 targets) for 66.1 yards and 0.4 TDs per game, with a receiving average of 12.4 yards. This season with Stafford, Kupp is averaging 7.7 receptions (on 11.3 targets) for 108.8 yards and 1.2 TDs per game, with a receiving average of 14.2 yards — huge upticks across the board.
At age 28, Kupp’s window for dominance might not be as large as some of the other receivers in the NFL. But he’s locked in with the Rams through the 2023 season (with two voidable years thereafter) and should be one of their go-to targets, health willing, for the remainder of that span.
And if Kupp can match his first 60-game output over his next 60 games for the Rams, he’d be third in franchise history in receptions (behind only Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt), fourth in receiving yards (behind Bruce, Holt and Henry Ellard) and third in TD catches (behind Bruce and Holt).
It’s time to start appreciating his production and skill more, it seems.