Tyler Higbee has emerged as a big target for Rams quarterback Jared Goff
His recent highlight-reel exposure might have been a revelation for some, but the dynamic pass-catching ability Rams tight end Tyler Higbee displayed during consecutive 100-yard receiving performances was no surprise to others.
Bob Hudson helped develop it while coaching Higbee in high school in Florida. Jeff Brohm and Tyson Helton utilized it as coach and offensive coordinator at Western Kentucky.
And Rams star running back Todd Gurley has seen it during three-plus seasons as Higbee’s teammate.
“He’s been doing what he’s been doing at practice,” Gurley said. “He’s just doing it in a game now.”
The 6-foot-6, 255-pound Higbee could play a large role again Sunday when the Rams play the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium. It is a must-win game for the Rams, who are 8-5 and chasing the Minnesota Vikings (9-4) for an NFC wild-card spot.
Higbee, 26, helped position the Rams for a possible run to the playoffs by producing career-best performances against the Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks.
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With tight end Gerald Everett sidelined because of a knee injury, coach and play-caller Sean McVay made Higbee one of quarterback Jared Goff’s primary targets. Higbee caught seven passes for 107 yards and a touchdown in the 34-7 victory over the Cardinals. He had seven receptions for 116 yards in a 28-12 victory over the Seahawks.
“It’s not any different than what we’ve seen in moments in games,” Rams tight ends coach Wes Phillips said. “He’s done that in spurts before but just now, having more opportunities, it’s really come out and shown.”
In the 26-23 NFC championship game victory over the New Orleans Saints last season, Higbee had four catches, including a third-quarter touchdown and two key receptions during the game-winning drive in overtime.
This season, Everett’s injury and McVay’s decision as of late to deploy personnel groups that include Higbee and tight end Johnny Mundt opened the door for Higbee to play more.
In the Rams’ first 11 games, for example, Higbee did not play more than 49 snaps. He played 72 against the Cardinals, and 68 against the Seahawks.
“He’s always been a confident player,” McVay said. “There’s, I think, a lot of confidence that he can draw from what he’s done over the last couple weeks.”
Higbee said his recent production was a product of three-plus seasons spent maturing into the multifaceted role required of NFL tight ends.
“I’ve grown over the years, but I’ve always had confidence in myself,” said Higbee, who has 40 catches for 435 yards and two touchdowns this season. “When it’s my time to go get it, I’ll go get it.”
Higbee first showed his pass-catching skill as a gangly, long-striding receiver at East Lake High in Tarpon Springs, Fla. He caught passes thrown high above his head, others inches off the turf. But attention from college recruiters was lukewarm for the then 190-pound Higbee.
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“I was too skinny to play tight end, too slow to play receiver is what everyone was saying,” he said.
But after his senior season, during practices for a state all-star game, Hudson moved Higbee to tight end.
“That’s where you’re going to be, that’s where you’re going to make your living,” Hudson told Higbee.
Western Kentucky signed Higbee as a receiver, and he played for three head coaches — Willie Taggart, Bobby Petrino and Brohm — during five seasons in Bowling Green, Ky.
Higbee played receiver as a freshman and then redshirted as a sophomore. When Petrino took over in 2013, Higbee said the coach told him he was moving to tight end.
Two years later, despite sitting out several games because of a knee sprain, Higbee caught 38 passes for 563 yards and eight touchdowns.
“Fortunately for us we had what we thought was a future NFL tight end that could stretch the field vertically, that could run up the seam, that could run past linebackers and sometimes safeties,” said Brohm, now the coach at Purdue. “And he had the toughness to catch it” in the middle of the field.
Said Helton, now Western Kentucky’s head coach: “He was that guy that you could say you can do everything with.”
In the 2016 draft, the Rams traded up to choose Goff with the No. 1 pick. They selected Higbee three rounds later with the 110th. Higbee’s stock might have fallen because of a 2016 off-the-field incident outside a bar in Kentucky. In 2017, he pleaded guilty to second-degree assault under extreme emotional disturbance, agreed to be placed in a diversion program and reached a confidential restitution agreement with the victim, his attorney said at the time.
When Higbee reached his first training camp, he roomed with Goff and they have remained close friends.
“We like to play ‘Fortnite’ in our free time,” Goff said, referring to the popular online game. “I think in the offseason we’ll go play golf, we do a bunch of stuff together.”
Higbee caught 11 passes as rookie under former coach Jeff Fisher’s staff. His production under McVay more than doubled to 25 receptions in 2017, and 24 catches as the Rams advanced to the Super Bowl last season.
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In September, Goff signed a $134-million extension that included a record $110 million in guarantees. Two days later, the Rams signed Higbee to a four-year, $29-million extension that included just over $15 million in guarantees, according to overthecap.com.
So the Goff-Higbee connection could continue through the 2023 season.
“I trust him as much as anybody,” Goff said, “and that’s why I feel comfortable throwing him the ball, and big credit to him why he’s had so much success.”
Tight end Gerald Everett (knee) did not practice and was declared out for the game against the Cowboys. Offensive lineman Rob Havenstein (knee) was a full participant, but is listed as doubtful. Rookie Bobby Evans will continue to start at right tackle. Punt returner Nsimba Webster (hip) was a full participant and will play Sunday.
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