Before Nsimba Webster became Eastern Washington’s primary wide receiver, he learned to embrace a much lesser role.
Buried on a depth chart that included current NFL starters Cooper Kupp (Los Angeles Rams) and Kendrick Bourne (San Francisco 49ers), a sophomore Webster could be seen streaking down the field without a football thrown in his direction.
The ex-high school quarterback was running down returners on special teams and receiving kicks.
His sophomore year in the NFL has been similar.
Webster, an undrafted rookie in 2019 soon elevated to the Rams’ 53-man roster, has widely exceeded expectations because of his versatility and workman’s approach.
The Rams (5-3), who host the Seattle Seahawks (6-2) on Sunday, have used Webster at punt returner (10 returns, 56 yards), kick returner (six returns, 133 yards) and kickoff/punt team (six tackles) this season.
“(Special teams) is definitely something people don’t want to do,” said Webster, who totaled 2,072 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns combined between his junior and senior seasons at EWU. “But I take pride in it. It’s a dream come true to even be in this position.”
Listed as a second-team receiver behind Robert Woods, Webster has yet to register an NFL regular-season reception.
Webster’s former EWU teammate, Kupp, leads the team in receptions (48) and receiving yards (527).
“I had to do special teams at EWU before I started at receiver,” Webster said.
“But I always stay prepared (for receiver) in case my name is called.”
Another former EWU great, Taiwan Jones, helped Webster fall in love with his position.
Jones, a former All-American running back and fourth-round NFL draft pick who plays with the Buffalo Bills, has been mostly a special teams in his 10-year career.
Webster, who attended the same high school as Jones – Deer Valley in Antioch, California – received a dose of wisdom following a preseason game with the Bills in 2019.
“We were talking on the field after the game, and (Jones) told me that if I can do well in special teams, I can stay around in the league a lot longer,” Webster said.
Rams general manager Les Snead was pleasantly surprised by Webster last summer.
“You’re sitting in the press box and you’re going ‘Whoa, wait, who is (No.) 14? Who’s this Nsimba kid? The nice thing going back is you talk through it, he has return skills.
“Also, a receiver that has ability to cover for (special teams).
“That’s versatility. That’s a player with a lot of tools in his tool box. As (head coach Sean McVay) just said, you have a vision for if he continues to evolve, for his future and what he can do for this team.”
Some of the strongest, fastest and hardest-hitting players in the league get to generate speed before tackling the relatively diminutive Webster on returns,
Webster, who is listed at 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds, is apparently fearless.
“I’m not going to say it’s easy. It’s crazy being an NFL returner,” Webster said. “The game just slowed down the longer I’ve been here.”
The Rams debuted their new $6 billion So-Fi Stadium this season, which feels even more cavernous to Webster without fans.
“It feels like a scrimmage, like the ones we had at EWU,” Webster said of fanless games. “You forget that you’re on national television.”
To help preserve what Webster called the Rams’ “ecosystem” amid a pandemic, he mostly stays inside at his apartment when he isn’t working out or conducting team-related activities.
Staying indoors has helped him save his money, he said. Webster has a reported 2020 salary of $670,000.
“You never know how long you’re going to be in league, so I want to be conservative with my money,” said Webster, who played with his twin brother, Nzuzi, at EWU.
His first big purchase as a rookie last season was a 2018 Dodge Challenger, a muscle car worth an estimated $28,000.
Former EWU linebacker Samson Ebukam, also on the Rams’ roster after being drafted in 2017, also bought a Challenger as a rookie.
“It’s cheaper than a lot of cars some guys have,” Webster said.
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