Nothing is more devastating than offseason injury news—and perhaps the worst kind is the season-ending injury for a young, talented, and ascending player. Such is the case for second-year running back Cam Akers, who seemed destined for the bulk of the Los Angeles Rams’ rushing attack before news broke on Tuesday of an offseason Achilles tear.
The expectation was that Akers would be the bell cow back in Los Angeles, and it’s worth detailing the case supporting that belief. The Rams really started to lean on Akers as a bell-cow back only at the end of last season. Akers took more than 60% of the snaps in his four final games of the regular season, as well as the two playoff games, but never hit more than 33% in all of the games previous. Back-up Darrell Henderson never cleared 60% in any game last year; Malcolm Brown barely hit 60% three times on an eight-game stretch. This was largely a committee and one that Akers struggled to break through until the final few weeks of the regular season.
That final surge would just barely push Akers’ season usage over Henderson’s. He saw 35% of the snaps during the season; Henderson saw 31%. Akers saw a touch on 53% of his snaps during the season; Henderson saw a touch on 45% of his snaps.
So Akers’ likely role as the Los Angeles bellcow was more a projection than it was an expectation. And it was a good projection! The Rams clearly wanted him to be the bellcow down the stretch of the 2020 season, even pushing him through an ankle injury late in the year to secure their playoff spot and take the majority of the carries in the playoffs once Henderson went on IR. Head coach Sean McVay has historically used bell cow backs, and in this past offseason, singled Akers out as the star player in his backfield.
"You saw Darrell Henderson step up, Malcolm Brown was really consistent throughout the year, but Cam hit his stride at the right moments," McVay said in February. “I think he can come alive in the pass game. I think he can continue to play at a high level. Really, I think he's an every-down back. I think he's a special player."
Okay. So take all of that and hold on to it for a second. I’m gonna tell you another story.
With rookie second-round draft pick Akers injured early, Rams second-year running back Darrell Henderson saw an opportunity and took it. After a rookie season in which he totaled only 147 rushing yards, Henderson more than matched that total in a two-game stretch against the Philadelphia Eagles and Buffalo Bills: 185 yards on 32 carries, with a pair of touchdowns to boot. After three weeks of the 2020 season, Henderson was one of the most dangerous running backs in the league.
After a standout 20-carry, 114-yard performance against the Bills, McVay had this to say about Henderson’s sudden explosion after a bland rookie season:
“He did a great job. I’m not surprised. I think he built on a really good performance from the previous week...He made a lot of plays. He’s going to continue to make a lot of plays and I’ve been very pleased with Darrell over the last couple of weeks.”
Now, knowing what we know now: that Henderson would end up with fewer carries than Brown the very next week; that Henderson would average 2.5 carries in each of the next two weeks; that Akers would eventually be handed the starting job during the end of the season and into the playoff run, it doesn’t really matter. But you could have built a pretty decent “bellcow” case for Henderson after the first month of the season—and plenty of people did—just as people are now for Akers.
Again, that case for Akers wasn’t bad at all. What teams do at the end of the season matters more than the beginning, when rookies and coaches alike are still figuring stuff out. Akers was more productive for longer, and even when Henderson was playing well, the Rams were still clearly oriented on getting Akers up to speed. He was the guy to believe in entering 2021.
But with the injury considered, all of the truths of Henderson’s career remain. He was drafted for a completely different system than he played in college, experienced some early growing pains, and clearly got better in Year two. He did deliver a high caliber of production when given a bell cow’s volume, even if it was just for a small stretch. He has a better pass-catching and pass-blocking profile than Akers and he plays in one of the friendliest offenses in the league for running backs.
Akers was the breakout bell-cow candidate this year; but off of draft capital, past performance, and skill level, there’s little reason to believe Henderson can’t be that now. There’s a little more risk involved, certainly, but with Brown gone in free agency and Akers out for the season, there’s far more opportunity for Henderson to secure that job without competition than there was for Akers entering the year.
Henderson’s a young, talented, and ascending player in a great spot, and just because there was once tons of (warranted) faith in Akers, doesn’t mean Henderson deserves any less faith.