If you follow fantasy football, or if you follow the NFL Draft, or if you follow betting—if you follow the NFL in some capacity, you’ve heard some buzz for Los Angeles Rams rookie running back Cam Akers. The 52nd pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, and the Rams’ first selection after they traded away their first-round pick, Akers seems like a clear and resounding response by the Rams’ brass to the departure of bell-cow runner Todd Gurley, whose knee injuries became so limiting to his athleticism and his gameplay that the Rams cut him, incurring more than $20M in dead cap space over the next two years.
So out with the old and in with the new: Akers, the electric open-field athlete and tackle-breaking machine. Playing behind a bad offensive line for his entire career at Florida State, Akers has some bad habits reading blocks and staying patient behind his line, but also ripped off more than his fair share of electric runs given his contact balance and agility. Here’s what I had to say about his best trait pre-draft:
Contact Balance: Really impressive player who marries instincts, feet, and natural leverage into a strong contact balance profile. Super slippery in the open field and regularly sneaks through arm tackles or glancing blows to keep his feet/hips upfield and pick up dirty yardage. Flexibility in the lower half helps him get under blows that would take out taller/upright runners. Angry dude on the sideline who does not want to go out of bounds. Off-hand has some flashes of sick strength.
So the tune goes: Gurley is gone, the Rams backfield has no clear replacement, they spent the highest draft capital they could on Akers, and he has a favorable developmental projection as he lands in a better situation.
But we’ve heard this tune before—almost one year ago to the day.
In the 2019 NFL Draft, with a top-70 pick and their second-earliest selection, the Rams brought in Memphis running back Darrell Henderson. They had bigger needs at the time, same as the Akers pick—and they had already had Gurley-related concerns, as the knee issues that plagued Gurley’s 2019 season flared up in the back half of 2018. When Henderson was drafted, he was billed as the same Gurley replacement that Akers has now been crowned. Akers was given a high ceiling in the pros because of his bad Power 5 team; Henderson, for playing at a Group of 5 program.
And the skill sets? They’re not dissimilar. Like Akers, Henderson’s best trait is his contact balance. Does this read familiar?
Contact Balance: Where he wins. Regularly melts off of contact and pinwheels through tackling attempts. Despite upright running style, retains natural leverage. Constant motion and redirection make it difficult for in-space tacklers to get an angle on him, which leads to insufficient hits that he easily survives. Can get tripped up or significantly delayed in the first level due to vision/processing concerns putting him in bad spots, but can also slink through tight creases to vanish and reappear, which confounds second-level fill defenders.
Henderson and Akers are far from perfect matches in their body composition, athleticism, and style, but it isn’t hard to understand why the same scouting staff valued both players. The question remains if the coaching staff will see them on equal footing as well.
This question is born of Henderson’s disappointing rookie season, which shocked many a hopeful fantasy owner or darkhorse Rookie of the Year bettor. Henderson started the season as the third back on the depth chart, getting blanked in four of the first five weeks of the season while veteran running back Malcolm Brown saw up to 36% of the weekly snaps. When Brown lost a couple of games to injury, Henderson saw 22 carries for 80 yards, and then fell right back down to RB3 again.
There can be many fair explanations for why Henderson’s rookie season wasn’t the immediate, C.J. Anderson-esque explosion for which many hoped. Henderson went from having an elite Group of 5 line to a pretty bad NFL offensive line, which ranked 19th in adjusted line yards in 2019. Henderson also dealt with an ankle injury that would eventually put him on injured reserve, and plays for a head coach that seems to be now committed to a committee approach. This is what McVay said about the Akers selection and his current backfield:
"We feel we've got three really good backs. What does that mean in terms of the distribution of carries? I think that's to be determined based on how things play themselves out and when we get a chance to actually compete in practice and in those live opportunities."
"What we wanted to do was get a group that we felt really good about. This enables us to say, 'We're not necessarily committed to any approach, it's a feel for the flow of the game.' But you'd like everybody to create a role for themselves, and we'll see what ends up happening then."
As the Rams shift from ringing Gurley’s bell to spreading the wealth with their younger and healthier backs, it’s also worth noting that their running scheme has evolved since their Super Bowl push in 2018. They were a wide zone team that looked to get Gurley working laterally, if only to plant his foot, cut against flow, and drive uphill. They got their offensive linemen moving, but they were physical. They ran out of 11 personnel and under-center alignments to feed into their play-action game.
Suddenly, they needed the veteran Anderson for a playoff push. Anderson didn’t have the body control or upfield explosiveness that Gurley did, so they started running Duo concepts and inside zones to let Anderson win with physicality and power. They could still do this out of 11 personnel; they also did it out of 12.
This trend continued into 2019, as the Rams searched for the same offensive magic they had in their 2018 run. The Rams ran more 12 personnel by a wide margin in 2019 than they ever had under McVay, and with it came more Duo runs that kept Gurley’s engine humming as it didn’t task his athletic ability to the same degree.
But when Henderson was drafted for the Rams, people lauded the fit in the wide zone system. Was the transition to new personnel and accounting for a poor offensive line just an unfortunate draw for Henderson, a wide zone runner? Not necessarily. It’s worth remembering that, while Henderson had the skill set to play an outside zone scheme well, he was a power scheme runner at Memphis, and a darn good one. Just because a back is springy doesn’t mean he’s a fit for zone running—and learning to read those blocks and win on those cuts takes time.
And now, in comes Akers, who fits a zone scheme better than a gap scheme, by my eye. This brings us to Les Snead’s quote following the Akers selection on the topic of his carefully sculpted running back room:
"San Francisco does a good job identifying how they want to run the ball. Then you find players who can help you run the football the way you want to because not every running back is built the same and not every running scheme is the same."
So how do the Rams want to run the ball? Is it back to the wide zone approach with which McVay first made his hay, and the sweeping wide zone of 11 personnel and Akers? Is it the downhill, explosive power approach that Henderson could find easier to learn given his time at Memphis? It isn’t so neat as one or the other. The Rams still don’t like using pullers, which is most familiar to Henderson; wide zone and inside zone require different reads, and Akers is much more familiar with inside zone than a wide zone approach.
But the answer to the riddle of who wins the starting job may lie there. It may lie in a true camp battle, as McVay implied. But caution should be stressed on the hype train of Akers, if not for the very cautionary tale that he hopes to prove wrong that sits alongside him atop the depth chart, fighting for the very same job.