On the final day of NFL roster cuts in August, after Nsimba Webster earned one of the coveted 53 spots on his team, Rams coach Sean McVay and general manager Les Snead marveled at the school that produced the receiver.
Eastern Washington University was producing a steady supply of talented players to the Rams.
Snead said he was quoting McVay about the former Eagles.
“They come in and earn it,” Snead said.
The Rams began the season with four players from Eastern Washington, an NCAA Football Championship Subdivision school located in Cheney, about a four-hour drive from Seattle. Webster was the latest to join a Rams team that included receiver Cooper Kupp, linebacker Samson Ebukam and offensive lineman Aaron Neary.
Neary has since been released, but the Rams will travel to the Northwest for Thursday night’s game against the Seattle Seahawks with three former Eastern Washington players in tow.
“It doesn’t matter where you come from,” Ebukam said of making the jump from a smaller college program to the NFL. “If you can ball, you can ball. That’s all it really comes down to.”
About 15% of the Rams’ roster played college football in Washington state. Along with the Eastern Washington products, the team also features five players from the University of Washington — linebacker Cory Littleton, cornerback Marcus Peters, safety Taylor Rapp, defensive lineman Greg Gaines and center Coleman Shelton.
But Pac-12 schools such as Washington, and other Power Five Conference schools in the Football Bowl Subdivision, are regarded as the name-brand stops on the way to the NFL.
Eastern Washington, perhaps best known for its red Sprinturf field, is not the only FCS school establishing a reputation for producing productive NFL players. According to the NCAA, 157 players from 76 FCS schools were on NFL opening-day rosters. That includes former North Dakota State quarterback Carson Wentz, the second pick in the 2016 draft behind Rams quarterback Jared Goff.
Eastern Washington won the FCS title in 2010. Last season, the Eagles lost to North Dakota State in the championship game.
Kupp, a third-round draft pick in 2017, said Eastern Washington’s success goes beyond winning.
“They’re teaching stuff that’s applicable all the way through this game and developing guys,” said Kupp, who leads the Rams with 32 receptions, three for touchdowns. “They’re not just seeing if they can plug a guy into their system, they’re developing guys as players.”
Beau Baldwin was Eastern Washington’s head coach for nine years before he left after the 2016 season to become California’s offensive coordinator. Aaron Best, a longtime assistant, succeeded Baldwin.
The two coaches said there was no mystery to their former players’ success.
“It wasn’t anything magic in the water in Cheney,” Baldwin said. “It was them going out and working their craft, and one guy maybe leading the next guy.”
Kupp, from Yakima, Wash., redshirted as a freshman and then played four seasons, setting FCS receiving records by the time he was done.
Ebukam, who played high school football in Portland, Ore., somehow escaped the eye of Pac-12 schools and, as with Kupp, put in the work on the field, in the weight room and during film study, and developed into a 2017 fourth-round pick.
Webster, played quarterback at Deer Valley High in Antioch, Calif., but at Eastern Washington he learned a new position and also emerged as a potent kick returner before the Rams signed him as a free agent after the draft in April.
“We just have a history of hungry guys coming out,” Webster said.
From a distance, Best said that Rams’ unselfish culture under McVay appears similar to the one fostered at Eastern Washington. So he is not surprised the Rams have repeatedly tapped the program.
“You go to the grocery store and you like something, and then all of a sudden you may go to the grocery store for something else that they’re not noted for … and say, ‘That’s a pretty good product too,’ ” Best said.
“Before you know it, all your shopping is done there.”