Is Kendall Blanton an X-factor in Super Bowl LVI?

    With Rams tight end Tyler Higbee's status for the Super Bowl currently unknown, can backup Kendall Blanton step up to replace him?

    Late in the first quarter of the NFC Championship Game, the Los Angeles Rams lost a critical component of their offense when tight end Tyler Higbee went down with an injury. Thrust into the spotlight was one Kendall Blanton, a second-year tight end who saw limited snaps during the regular season. Fortunately for Los Angeles, Blanton was up to the task.

    Kendall Blanton is typically blocked by Tyler Higbee in the Rams offense

    It is difficult to overstate how big of a loss Higbee was for Los Angeles. While most of their offense understandably runs through Cooper Kupp, Higbee has been a consistent threat for the team all year.

    During the regular season, he totaled 560 yards and 5 touchdowns, finishing third on the Rams in both categories. In two and a quarter playoff games, he added another 115 receiving yards. However, those statistics don’t fully encapsulate Higbee’s importance to Los Angeles.

    The Rams rarely used more than one tight end at a time this season. And with Gerald Everett joining the Seattle Seahawks during the offseason, Higbee was on the field almost constantly. Losing him meant losing not only his production but a constant fixture of the Los Angeles offense.

    Blanton took on a more significant role during the postseason

    In stark contrast to Higbee, Blanton has barely featured in the Los Angeles offense since signing with the Rams as an undrafted free agent in 2019. He only appeared in one game during his rookie season and wasn’t targeted at all that year.

    Blanton’s role was expanded slightly this year, but he was still only targeted 7 times during the regular season. He caught 4 passes for a grand total of 37 yards. Not much changed in the Rams’ first playoff game against the Arizona Cardinals. Blanton saw the field but wasn’t targeted.

    He did play a small, but critical role in the passing game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He only caught 2 passes, but one of them was for his first NFL touchdown.

    Asking an inexperienced player like Blanton to fill the massive void left by Higbee could have ended in disaster. Instead, Blanton responded by posting 5 receptions for 57 yards against the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game, good for third on the team behind Kupp and Odell Beckham Jr.

    In a game that came down to the wire, if Blanton hadn’t been able to step up, it seems likely that San Francisco would have beaten their in-state rivals an eighth consecutive time. Instead, the second-year tight end came through in the clutch.

    Blanton shined via advanced metrics against the 49ers last weekend

    In the same way that Higbee’s regular-season statistics don’t represent his significance to the Los Angeles offense this season, Blanton’s box score from the NFC Championship doesn’t grasp the value he provided to the Los Angeles offense on Sunday.

    To help us understand Blanton’s impact, let’s turn now to the Offensive Value Metric (OVM). The OVM is a grading system created by the (Bx) Movement to measure how much of a player’s statistical production they were actually responsible for.

    Blanton didn’t play nearly enough to earn a grade during the regular season. However, he excelled on this metric last Sunday, receiving the highest grade of any player in the Conference Championships, at 50.15. That grade represents an exceptionally efficient performance from the Rams’ tight end.

    It also represents the potential continuation of an interesting statistical pattern. So far this season, the team with the highest-graded tight end in a given week won their next game 16 out of 21 times. Such trends make no guarantees, but this one is definitely a good sign for the Rams.

    Examining the factors involved in calculating Blanton’s grade

    To help us understand why Blanton earned such a high grade last Sunday, let’s look at the advanced metrics behind it. To start, Blanton’s 5 receptions came on just 5 targets. That made him the only player from the Conference Championships with a 100% catch rate.

    Blanton also averaged 10.5 yards after the catch, better than any player from last Sunday not named Deebo Samuel. Coming in second to Samuel in this category is no reason for shame. The 49ers receiver is something of a YAC savant, leading the NFL in that category each of the last two seasons. According to the NFL’s projections, Blanton’s YAC average was 1.6 yards above expectation, fourth among qualifying players.

    Blanton’s performance on his previous statistics was helped by the fact that he led all players in separation when targeted, at an average of 4.7 yards per target. And he did so despite not being given as much cushion by defenders as some other players, at a mediocre average of 6.3 yards per target.

    Put simply, Blanton did exactly what was asked of him — and more.

    If Higbee doesn’t play, Blanton is a solid replacement

    Reports suggest that Higbee’s injury isn’t overly significant. With an extra week to recover, he might return in time for Super Bowl LVI. If that happens, we might not see much of Blanton in that game.

    However, if Higbee isn’t able to play, or can only participate in a limited capacity, the Rams will need to rely on Blanton once again. Fortunately, his performance last week suggests that he is more than up to the task.

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