For the past five seasons, the Los Angeles Rams‘ offense ran through Todd Gurley. But as the Rams move toward the 2020 season, they must design their run game without the All-Pro back, whom they released in March.
With Gurley gone, how will Gurley’s massive workload be redistributed and who will take over?
All options are on the table, according to coach Sean McVay, who seems to be keeping an open mind as the Rams move into a post-Gurley era with a running back corps that includes Malcolm Brown, Darrell Henderson Jr. and rookie Cam Akers.
“We feel we’ve got three really good backs,” said McVay, who is coming off a 9-7 season and entering his fourth year as head coach. “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.”
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The Rams have recently prioritized running backs in the NFL draft.
Last year, they used their second pick — a third-round selection — to draft Henderson from Memphis. In April, the Rams used their first pick, a second-round selection, to select Akers from Florida State. Brown returns for a sixth season as he enters the final year of a two-year, $3.3 million contract.
Following Gurley’s release, Rams general manager Les Snead pointed to the San Francisco 49ers as a potential model to fashion their running back room. Under coach Kyle Shanahan last season, the 49ers distributed the ball relatively evenly among three running backs, while reacting on a game-by-game basis as to who was running the ball especially well.
“San Francisco does a good job identifying how they want to run the ball,” Snead said. “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.”
Brown has long proven himself capable in any situation, but it seems most plausible the Rams will first turn to developing the young playmakers in whom they recently invested.
Akers can run between the tackles and also is a developed pass catcher. Henderson has flashed bouncing outside the tackles.
“What we wanted to do was get a group that we felt really good about,” McVay said when asked about his approach to distributing carries. “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.”
In three seasons at Florida State, Akers rushed for 2,875 yards and 27 touchdowns. He averaged 4.9 yards per carry. Akers also caught 69 passes for 486 yards and seven touchdowns.
“Going back to high school, he runs like a warrior, he runs angry, he runs like he wants to punish a defense,” Snead said. “One of the things you really appreciate about him is they struggled a little bit at Florida State these last few years, wasn’t as stout up front on the [offensive line]. He was one of their better players.”
The 5-foot-10, 217-pound Akers, who turns 21 next month, is embracing the opportunity to join a team without an established starting running back.
“I bring a three-down, a four-down back if necessary,” Akers said. “I’m somebody who can come in and be a game changer.”
It’s uncertain how quickly Akers will be able to adjust to the NFL, as teams have been forced to hold rookie camp and the offseason program virtually because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic that has closed NFL facilities.
“It’s to be determined,” McVay said about Akers’ role. “What he does is he adds great value to that group.”
When the Rams drafted Henderson in 2019, the shifty, 5-foot-8, 208-pound back appeared to be an insurance policy for Gurley, who nine months earlier signed a record-breaking extension but slowed late in the 2018 season because of knee issues.
Henderson is entering the second season of a four-year, $4.2 million rookie contract.
Last season, Henderson popped in sporadic opportunities but played 8% (93) of the offensive snaps. Nevertheless, McVay and quarterback Jared Goff have expressed confidence in his ability.
“Darrell is a special talent, a special player, and he can be dangerous,” Goff said. “I think he’s fast, he’s athletic, he can catch extremely well, he’s got the ability to be, I think, as time goes on, a top guy. We’re going to have to wait and see, but he’s got everything you want. He’s smart, he’s fast. He’s agile. He can do everything.”
As a rookie, Henderson rushed for 147 yards on 39 carries and caught four passes for 37 yards. He averaged 3.77 yards per carry.
In Week 6, when Gurley was out because of a thigh bruise, Henderson rushed for 39 yards on six carries, including 22- and 14-yard runs against the 49ers. However, on the first play of the second half, Henderson fumbled a pitch from Goff deep in Rams territory. The Niners recovered it, scored the go-ahead touchdown and eventually won 20-7.
Henderson ended last season on injured reserve after suffering a high ankle sprain in Week 16.
“Henderson had some instances where you see the flashes of why we liked him so much coming out of Memphis last year,” McVay said. “Really excited about the opportunity he’s going to have to earn some more carries and touches.”
Gurley’s longtime backup, Brown experienced increased opportunity last season, particularly in the red zone. He rushed for a career-high 255 yards and scored a career-best five touchdowns despite spending two games sidelined because of an ankle injury.
“We’ve seen what Malcolm can do, pretty consistently,” Goff said. “He’s always been a guy that’s stepped in there when he’s needed to and contributed at a consistent level.”
In five seasons, Brown has rushed for 769 yards and six touchdowns on 197 carries.