Something bizarre leaps off your screen when looking back on the statistical leaders from Week 6 of the NFL season.
Scroll down the receiving leaders for that week, and you’ll see the Atlanta Falcons’ Julio Jones with 139 yards on seven receptions. That’s become Jones’ standard weekly explosion. We now expect him to detonate a defense every game.
But it’s much easier to be surprised when you look one name—and only three yards—lower on the same list.
That’s where you’ll find Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Kenny Britt and his 136 yards on seven catches with two touchdowns. You may then assume Week 6 was a random flash from Britt, and his sudden meteoric rise will be followed by cratering back down to level ground.
Go ahead and flip over to another receiving leaderboard then. Look at the one that shows the NFL’s overall receiving leaders as we inch closer to midseason, which means nothing listed is some small-sample fluke.
You’ll find Britt’s name in the 10th slot. That’s right: He’s a top-10 receiver with his 492 receiving yards, which have come at an average of 82 yards per game.
Britt missed 23 games over his five seasons with the Tennessee Titans.
Yes, we live in a world where Britt has more receiving yards than the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Antonio Brown and the Denver Broncos’ Demaryius Thomas, among many others. How did this happen to a 28-year-old receiver who has never recorded even an 800-plus-yard year? And how is he doing it with Case Keenum as his quarterback?
Answering those questions begins with health.
For the first time in his career, Britt hasn’t broken, torn, bruised or twisted anything for a prolonged stretch of time. He’s logged two straight 16-game seasons and hasn’t suffered an injury yet in 2016. That’s allowed him to develop familiarity and comfort within the offense.
Chemistry with Keenum—who has now made 11 starts over the past two years—has also grown due to Britt merely being present at practice and on game days instead of either hobbling around or in the trainer’s room.
While being healthy is clearly important, there’s much more to Britt’s emergence than his ability to stand upright. When we look deeper, a different Britt is revealed, one who doesn’t just live for home run swinging.
Let’s be clear, though: He can still slip into full turbo mode, blasting off deep and then showing incredible athleticism by securing lobbed footballs that have no business landing safely in his hands. Just as he did for this one-handed 47-yard grab against the Detroit Lions:
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That was one of Britt’s nine receptions for 20-plus yards in 2016, which ranks tied for fifth in the league.
So no, he hasn’t lost touch with his true wide receiver roots. The secondary-stretching skills that made him a first-round pick back in 2009 are still alive and well. For further evidence of a beating heart there, we can turn to his average of 16.4 yards per reception.
But now we’re seeing a more well-rounded Britt. He’s capable of succeeding and separating at all areas of the field, often bursting forward for valuable yards after the catch.
Consider, for example, the extreme opposite of the deep balls that were once the sole football diet Britt lived on. With Pro Football Focus data, let’s zoom in on his receptions when the ball travels nine yards or fewer through the air. Those aren’t sexy catches, but they’re still vitally important in the effort to either get first downs or set the offense up for a more makeable third-down situation.
Kenny Britt’s short receptions
Year 0-9 yard catches 2014 23 2015 15 2016 18
The Rams are still two games shy of the halfway point in their 2016 schedule, and Britt already has more short receptions than he did throughout all of 2015.
That shift hasn’t detracted from his vertical presence. Instead, Britt has become more versatile as a route-runner and able to be utilized in a variety of ways. He’s gained 160 yards while on the receiving end of throws traveling at least 20 yards downfield, per PFF, which puts him just outside of the top 10 in that category.
The foundation of his rise as a more dynamic weapon has been to create clean separation regardless of the route’s length and then capitalize on it. He’s caught 75 percent of his targets, and even more impressive, Keenum has a passer rating of 132.5 when throwing to Britt, per PFF.
He can high point the ball to win battles in tight coverage and has the short-area quickness to avoid said coverage. None of that is surprising, as we saw it from Britt early in his career. In 2011 with the Tennessee Titans, he recorded 289 receiving yards over only three games to begin the season and seemed to be ascending fast. Then he tore his ACL and MCL.
Between that and off-field incidents, he wasn’t the same during the rest of his Titans tenure.
But in his eighth season and 95th game, Britt had one of his best afternoons ever on an NFL field. His Week 6 output was highlighted by receptions for gains of 20, 43 and 47 yards.
— Los Angeles Rams (@RamsNFL) October 18, 2016
He’s quietly set a pace for 1,312 receiving yards in 2016. It’s not at all outlandish to think Britt can either maintain that pace or something close to it. The former Rutgers standout has finished with 75-plus yards in four of his six games so far.
Keenum’s ability to avoid turning back into a quarterback pumpkin is the larger question. Dodging that fate has a direct impact on both Britt and the Rams offense as a whole.
A weak offensive line has struggled to block for Keenum and running back Todd Gurley, who’s averaging only 2.9 yards per carry. The result has been wildly inconsistent point production, with the Rams scoring as many as 28 and 37 points and as few as the death number for any offense: zero. They went two games without a touchdown to start the year.
But even during that stretch of offensive sputtering, Britt still posted a 94-yard game on six catches, and he did it against the Seattle Seahawks’ fifth-ranked pass defense. He also finished with 82 yards against the Arizona Cardinals during a game when All-Pro cornerback Patrick Peterson was often covering him.
He’s collected 250 more receiving yards than Tavon Austin—the next-closest Rams receiver—on only four more catches, and he’s been on the receiving end for 34.7 percent of the Rams’ passing yards. That percentage and high-volume usage needs to continue for the Rams to have any hope of escaping their crippling mediocrity.
The natural conclusion to any season coached by Jeff Fisher is a swift regression back to bland also-ran status. Maybe, just maybe, the Rams have unearthed a veteran spark who can finally steer them clear of that annual frustration.