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Rams WR Cooper Kupp and the art of creating separation

By Eric D. Williams
FOX Sports NFC West Writer

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — Cooper Kupp is at it again.

Practice ended 20 minutes ago, but Kupp remains on the field working on his specialties — creating separation at the top of his route and making contested catches. Afterward, he heads to the weight room for some leg work. 

Kupp’s nonstop work ethic is one of the reasons he finished a historic season as the triple-crown winner last year, leading the league in receptions (145), receiving yards (1,947) and receiving touchdowns (16) on his way to winning NFL Offensive Player of the Year and Super Bowl MVP awards.

Through three games this year, Kupp is among the league leaders again. Entering Week 4, he was second in receptions with 28 for 280 receiving yards and three scores.

But his 20-yard rushing touchdown on a jet sweep — his first career rushing TD — in a win over the Arizona Cardinals last week showed another dimension to his game: speed. 

Not many NFL observers talk about Kupp’s ability to accelerate, but according to Next Gen Stats, Kupp reached 20.45 mph on that play, his fastest time since suffering a season-ending knee injury in 2018. 

“I still don’t call myself a blazer or anything like that, but I’m fast enough to get around the corner sometimes,” Kupp said about the play. “I give myself credit enough to do that. The more you can do.” 

Kupp will put his considerable skills on display in a nationally televised Monday Night Football contest when the Rams travel to San Francisco to take on the 49ers. Over the past three games against San Francisco, Kupp has averaged 10 receptions for 128 receiving yards and a touchdown, so the Niners will likely gameplan forhim, wherever he goes on the field.

“It’s the Cooper Kupp show, no matter how you try to slice it up,” Niners defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans told reporters this week. “Whether guys are doubling him, whatever it is, the guy finds a way. The connection and chemistry with him and [Matthew] Stafford are one of the best I’ve seen in the league in a long time.” 

Rams receivers coach Eric Yarber has had a front-row seat to Kupp’s development into one of the NFL’s best receivers. Yarber first glimpsed Kupp’s unique talent at the 2017 Senior Bowl, where the Eastern Washington product put on a show against the best players eligible for the draft.

The Rams had a formal interview with Kupp that week.

“He was like a coach in the room,” Yarber said. “It was a room full of scouts and coaches, and when we put him on the board it sounded like a coach was up there writing the plays. He was sharp as a whip. I definitely was blown away.”

Yarber said he’s had only one other player show the type of command dissecting plays on a whiteboard like Kupp — former Oregon State standout T.J. Houshmandzadeh. 

“They are slot guys that can play outside,” Yarber said. “There’s not a lot of slot guys that can go outside. And one thing about them is they know coverages so well. They know where everybody is supposed to be. They know the weaknesses of the defense. So that makes them play faster.”

Yarber said the Rams had a private workout with Kupp just before the draft. The Rams used a private plane and went to five or six different schools to work out receivers. The team contingent included head coach Sean McVay, general manager Les Snead, chief operating officer Kevin Demoff, offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur and Yarber. 

At Kupp’s pro day, Yarber said the receiver was prepared for all the drills because his coach at Eastern Washington, Junior Adams, had played for Yarber when he was an assistant at Oregon State from 1999 to 2002. And Kupp put on a show for the Rams’ staff. 

“When I went up to press him on the release drills, I saw his quickness,” Yarber said. “He didn’t have any wasted motion in his route-running. He was real efficient.” 

The Rams weren’t sure if Kupp would be around when they wanted to draft him. But he fell into the team’s lap in the third round, partially because he ran a 4.62-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine.

“What we were so happy when he ran 4.6,” Yarber said. “We said, ‘Ahh, we can get him.’ We were happy that he ran that. He played way faster than what he ran. We didn’t care what he ran, but we knew other people would. So, that brought him to the third round with us.”

Yarber said Kupp has used his smarts, diligence and elite quickness to develop into one of the best receivers in the game. He’s also a willing blocker in the running game, which allows the Rams to line up all over the field. 

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But Yarber said what makes Kupp lethal is his ability to get up to maximum speed quickly and create separation at the top of his route. 

“One thing about Cooper that makes him so unique is he runs 4.5 and he plays 4.5,” Yarber said. “He’s in and out of his cuts at 4.5, where a lot of receivers can run 4.4 or 4.5, but when it gets time to get in and out of their cuts, they’re running 4.7 or 4.8. He can make full-speed cuts.

“When you watch him, his feet are always underneath him. It really takes three steps to get in and out of cuts, and he’s mastered three-step rhythm. Every route, you lower your center of gravity, and you transition, plant and drive in most intermediate routes. If you are an average receiver, it’s going to take you five. If you are a good receiver, it’s going to take you three steps to get in and out of your cuts.”

Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris knows that defeated feeling of watching Kupp consistently win the route. He faces Kupp every day in practice and intimately understands the stress he puts on a defense.

“Nick Saban was one of the people that used to say back in the day, ‘You’ve got to be able to run when they know,” Morris said. “Cooper has taken that to another level in being productive at whatever he’s doing.

“He’s a masterful guy that can get on your edge. He can work edges better than anybody. He can make his moves look exactly the same, when he’s going opposite ways. And now he’s added this new vertical element to his game that’s taken it to another level. And I think that’s the biggest difference.” 

But more than his newfound speed, Yarber says Kupp’s greatest strength might be what he does off the field. 

“Every week I say, that’s another thing I’m going to put on my teach tape,” Yarber said. “But what he really has is he cares for his teammates. I was a person who cared about my teammates, and he does the same thing. And I’m so proud that he does that. 

“That’s his legacy: He teaches the other guys to play for each other.” 

Eric D. Williams has reported on the NFL for more than a decade, covering the Los Angeles Rams for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Chargers for ESPN and the Seattle Seahawks for the Tacoma News Tribune. Follow him on Twitter at @eric_d_williams.

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