To a degree, Tyler Higbee’s left hand likely still throbs from time to time.
But so do his numbers.
Take Sunday’s 23-16 win against the Seahawks. Brandishing a white splint of sorts that extended well past his left wrist, the East Lake High alumnus had a season-high six targets, catching three passes for 60 yards.
“He’s a warrior just pushing through to play with that hand,” Rams coach Sean McVay said days before that triumph.
“It looked like he’s wearing, like, a RoboCop contraption that makes it a little bit more difficult to control the ball, let alone block some of these elite defenders that he’s having to handle.”
Don’t be surprised then, if Higbee has a hand — lingering soreness notwithstanding — in Monday night’s showdown at Raymond James Stadium against the Bucs in what will represent the second homecoming of his NFL career.
His first came in his rookie season of 2016, when he played 21 offensive snaps but wasn’t targeted in a 37-32 Rams triumph. He says he’ll enter this one 100 percent.
“(The hand) just got banged up a little bit,” said Higbee, who anticipates having 10-12 family members at the game, which again will feature a socially distanced audience of roughly 15,000.
“It’s all good now.”
An East Lake wideout 10 years and several waist sizes ago, Higbee (6-feet-6, 255 pounds) is only a year removed from the most prolific stretch of his half-decade pro career. After totaling 26 catches in the first 10 games of 2019, he had 43 (for 521 yards and two touchdowns) in the last five.
That spurt included four consecutive 100-yard games in December.
“The window’s so short, and I’m blessed to have this opportunity,” said Higbee, who estimates he was 6-foot-4, 190 pounds upon his graduation from East Lake in 2011. “So I try to attack it every day like I’m about to lose my job so I can keep it as long as I can.”
A season before that, Higbee — who starred at Western Kentucky, where he played for three different coaches including Willie Taggart — burst into the national consciousness. His third-quarter scoring catch and two receptions in overtime helped propel the Rams to a 26-23 win against the Saints in the NFC championship game.
Combine the pass-catching chops with Higbee’s evolution as a run-blocker (Los Angeles’ 134.2 rushing yards a game rank eighth in the NFL), and the Rams possess “one of the few all-around tight ends that’s still left in the league,” according to Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles.
Yet Higbee, 27 and single, insists he hasn’t parlayed his versatility — or the four-year, $31 million extension he signed last year — into a life of southern California extravagance. He says he currently resides in a rented four-bedroom house with a pool in the San Fernando Valley.
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“I’m a simple man,” he said.
Not to mention a “savvy” one on the field, Bucs linebacker Lavonte David said.
“Not a lot of tight ends his size can move the way he moves,” David added. “He’s targeted a lot, he’s a guy who can catch the ball and get some YAC (yards after catch) with it. He’s definitely going to be a guy who we have to worry about.”
The prevailing worry, at least for Rams foes, is that the Seattle game represents a harbinger of another Higbee late-season surge.
Nearly a month has elapsed since he was forced to miss a game (vs. Chicago) with the injury. If he gets his hands on spirals as frequently as he puts his hand in the dirt, a Rams offense rife with motions and sweeps and play-action takes on yet another dimension.
“The more you can do, the harder it is for a team or a coaching staff to want to take you off the field,” he said.
“So the more I can do, I will only gain more opportunities. I try to take pride in being a complete tight end because nowadays you’re either a blocking tight end or a pass-catching tight end. So I just try to do a little bit of everything.”