Despite Cooper Kupp’s enthusiasm and apparent fitness, when the Rams opened training camp last weekend, questions lingered about the wide receiver’s surgically repaired left knee and how that might affect what has become one of the NFL’s most prolific offenses the last two seasons.
Kupp looked strong in early individual drills and caught mostly uncontested passes as the initial workout at UC Irvine progressed.
Then Kupp ran a route across the middle of the field during a full-squad scrimmage period.
Quarterback Jared Goff delivered a high pass. Kupp, with two defenders nearly draped across his body, leaped with hands outstretched.
“When the ball’s in the air, as a receiver, it’s just you want to be a Frisbee-catching dog out there,” Kupp said.
Kupp caught the pass and landed without the slightest hint of a problem.
The entire Rams organization sighed in relief.
“I asked him, ‘Hey, you’re glad you got that one, huh?’ ” Goff said. “He was like, ‘Yeah, it felt good.’ ”
Kupp’s knee issue has not generated the same offseason scrutiny as running back Todd Gurley’s. But the third-year pro’s return to form is regarded as crucial if the passing game is to equal or surpass last season’s production.
Eight months after he suffered the season-ending knee injury against the Seattle Seahawks at the Coliseum, Kupp appears on track to start alongside 1,000-yard receivers Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods when the Rams open the season Sept. 8 against the Carolina Panthers.
On Tuesday, the Rams’ first practice in full pads, Kupp found a seam on the first play of a drill that pits the starting offense against the starting defense, and he broke free for a long pass from Goff.
“It sounds crazy,” coach Sean McVay said, “but he looks more explosive than he was before.”
Kupp, a 2017 third-round draft pick from Eastern Washington, was on track for a possible 1,000-yard season before he was injured. His problems began in the sixth game when he suffered what was described as a knee strain as he was dragged down from behind with a horse-collar tackle against the Denver Broncos. He sat out two games and then returned to catch a touchdown pass against the New Orleans Saints.
But the next week against the Seahawks, Kupp fell to the turf — despite no contact — and suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament. He finished with 40 catches for 566 yards and six touchdowns.
Kupp underwent surgery and then began the road back. He was limited during offseason team workouts but is cleared for full participation in training camp.
“Through all my rehab, I haven’t felt like I’ve had to hold back at all,” he said this week. “This is just one more step in that. I don’t feel like I’m holding myself back in any way.
“I’m pushing as far as my body will let me.”
Kupp acknowledged the mental challenge, but it has not slowed him during camp.
“When you have attacked every step of the process the right way, there’s nothing to fear,” he said after the first workout. “There’s nothing to doubt when you step on the field because you’ve done everything you possibly could to put yourself in this position.
“Now it’s just letting it ride, letting it go.”
Teammates were not surprised that Kupp returned ready for training camp and the season.
“That’s the last guy I would be worried about,” Gurley said. “He’s such a hard worker. He’s such a professional. He knows what to do.”
Kupp’s absence for the second half of the season and the playoffs was not entirely negative for the Rams because it created opportunities for other players.
Wide receiver Josh Reynolds moved into the starting lineup — with Woods sliding into Kupp’s position — and Reynolds’ confidence grew seemingly with each successive game. He caught 29 passes for 402 yards and five touchdowns.
Tight end Gerald Everett also benefited. McVay called more plays for him, and Everett responded with 33 catches for 320 yards and three touchdowns. Everett caught two touchdown passes in the Rams’ 54-51 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs on “Monday Night Football,” including one for 40 yards.
The ascent of those players should provide McVay and Goff with even more options now that Kupp is back.
Kupp referenced future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning as a role model in regard to reviewing and studying an offense, even if it appeared he had already mastered it.
Kupp’s “intrinsic motivation, the way he’s wired,” makes him a special player, McVay said.
“He keeps you accountable as a coach,” McVay said. “You better make sure you have the answers to the questions because he’s doing his homework and if you say something wrong, he’s going to find a way to expose you.
“In a good way, though. It’s always positive.”
When on the field at the same time last season, Cooks, Woods and Kupp seamlessly operated in a scheme that helped the Rams rank among the NFL leaders in scoring and yardage.
Kupp is eager to get back into the offense.
“I don’t think you ever stop really learning it and being able to master it,” he said.