The NFL is littered with questions surrounding value; it permeates the billion-dollar business and extends from teams’ salary cap to their game planning. These questions can be applied to any player at any position, in almost any scenario. Is an electrifying quarterback worth a colossal trade package? Look no further than Deshaun Watson and the trade rumors that are circulating throughout the Houston Texans organization. Is there value in establishing the run when a team has a Hall of Fame quarterback in (and outside of) the pocket; the Seattle Seahawks will drive everyone mad for their insistence on underutilizing Russell Wilson. The questions about value form an unending list.
One team faced its own quarterback and run game concerns this season. The former is still a big question mark for the Los Angeles Rams, but the latter was answered with an impressive final stretch from rookie running back Cam Akers. The Rams can pat themselves on the back for seeing the potential in their first draft pick—Akers was selected with the 52nd overall pick with much debate across NFL circles—and, even more so, for adjusting their original approach.
Los Angeles selected Akers to help fill the void following Todd Gurley’s release. It was a questionable approach for some. The Rams spent one of their 2019 third-round picks on Darrell Henderson, a back out of Memphis, who played just 8% of the team’s snaps his rookie season. Henderson didn’t need to have an extensive role in Los Angeles’ offense last year; the team still had Gurley, despite his own regression. But as head coach Sean McVay prepared for his first season without the All-Pro back, he needed a different approach. This is where Henderson, Akers, and sixth-year back Malcolm Brown came into play. The Rams were going to run by committee.
It worked, on and off, but Los Angeles wasn’t seeing much consistent success from the backfield until Akers emerged in the second half of the season. The Rams slowly strayed from their run-by-committee approach and featured Akers more and more as the regular season progressed despite him battling two separate injuries; he first suffered a rib injury early in Week 2 and, more notably, a high-ankle sprain in Week 15. By Week 14, he saw 79% of the team’s offensive snaps, and by the time Los Angeles returned to the playoffs, Akers was playing in at least 72% of the team’s offensive snaps. After Akers’ breakout game against the New England Patriots in Week 14, he cemented his role as the team’s RB1. McVay took full advantage.
McVay wanted to establish the run and rely more on the Rams’ ability—or in this particular case, Akers’ ability—to move the ball on the ground with a shaky quarterback. This adjustment helped the Rams in the postseason, where Akers (literally) carried the offense in place of an ineffective passing game. Akers has been extremely productive without a good offensive line, which takes vision and superhero strength; both were displayed in the Rams’ divisional-round loss Saturday when he lined up in wildcat formation and carried a defender on his back five yards into the end zone and again when he stiff-armed outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith, who has about 60 pounds on Akers.
“The more you can have the ball in Cam Akers’ hands, we’re in a good position,” McVay said, via USA Today. “The one we were maybe looking for an opportunity to throw it to Jared, then he came back to it and what an outstanding touchdown run he had from about 7 yards out. This guy is going to be a big-time player. He got more and more confidence as the season went. I have tremendous confidence in him.”
Akers has not only opened up the field for Jared Goff (when he is effective), but Akers has allowed McVay to use different formations that have been excluded from the Rams’ playbook in recent years. While Akers dominated Los Angeles’ backfield Saturday—he accounted for all but six of the team’s total rushing yards—he also showed his quarterback roots. On multiple occasions, Akers took direct snaps in the wildcat formation. He took four in total with one resulting in the aforementioned touchdown. Prior to Saturday’s game, the Rams deployed the wildcat formation only once under McVay.
There are still a number of questions surrounding Los Angeles and its future success, particularly on offense with Goff being predictably unpredictable. But there’s one bright spot, one shining star that emerged out of the team’s 2020 season. Akers finished the year with 625 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns; he was also utilized in the passing game and finished with 11 receptions for 123 yards and one score.
Nine months ago, the Rams made the selection that best suited their needs. Now, Akers is already touted as the team’s future leader, and we should expect to see Akers as a key feature in the Rams’ run game next season.