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Cam Akers is done for the year and, most likely, as a potential NFL starter.
It's sad news to see injury alter a young talent's carer but barring significant advances in surgical and rehabilitation science, Akers is done as a fantasy-relevant player. Mikel Leshoure, Jonathan Williams, and D'Onta Foreman had starter potential before their injuries. While they were good enough to make rosters, they were only close to returning to their previous form.
While many won't share my view because they spend more time looking at stats than studying the position on film, Isaiah Crowell's athletic and rushing talents were on par with Akers—if not better—and his Achilles' tear cost him his career.
Many fantasy managers are likely going through denial. If that's you, my best advice with Akers after sucking it up and accepting the likelihood that he's done as a future starter is to monitor Marlon Mack's return. Even so, you're likely waiting to see if Mack earns a significant role in 2022 with a new team because he's stuck behind Jonathan Taylor and Nyheim Hines this year.
What about the Rams? Is Darrell Henderson a future fantasy starter, and if so, what's his ceiling? Are there potential fantasy surprises on the depth chart? Which veterans have the skills to be a match in L.A., and what is the coaching staff seeking from its current stable in August before pulling the trigger on an established talent?
This week's Gut Check has these answers and more.
Here's a quick breakdown for those of you who need answers and trust them from me:
- During the Sean McVay era, the Rams have displayed organizational blind spots with selecting running backs based on raw skills and either not recognizing the value of refined skills or giving the raw skills time to develop.
- Darrell Henderson is good enough to earn 12-17 touches per game and averaged 10 last year. With quality touches, he can earn solid-to-strong RB2 value in 12-team leagues in this offense as a runner and underrated receiver.
- Expect 10-12 touches as the baseline, which, for conservative managers, is fantasy RB3 territory if Henderson and the depth chart struggle with pass protection and the Rams have to add a veteran back.
- Jake Funk will get a lot of love, but he's a speedster with an unproven workload and fundamental issues with the Rams' blocking schemes. His selection reinforces the same organizational tendencies with running backs.
- Xavier Jones is the player to watch in camp. If he performs well enough in short-yardage and pass-protection, the Rams could stay with its current depth chart, and Henderson is the greatest beneficiary for production.
- If pass protection is the only issue for the depth chart, there are a lot of backs the Rams can add who won't kill Henderson's value, so the player added will tell you a lot about its confidence in having Henderson as the lead or a key figure in a two-back committee.
- If you're going to add a Rams back as a late-round speculative play with upside, Jones is the best option despite the likely clamoring for the Funk. Jones also has the most every-down upside beyond Henderson.
- Otherwise, Henderson is the best current option, and you can either wait for a signing or stockpile other positions and shop for an established running back during the season.
- See my advice at the end of the article for some fine points about exploiting reactionary fantasy managers.
These nine points are enough to help you move forward. If you want more — and most of you do — keeping reading.
The Rams are in Evaluation Mode
Here's what Sean McVay initially told the media after learning the news about Akers' injury via the Footballguys' newswire headline and blurb:
L.A. Rams in no hurry to sign veteran RB
Los Angeles Rams RBs Darrell Henderson, Raymond Calais, Xavier Jones, and Jake Funk each figure to get a long look in camp, based on comments from head coach Sean McVay following the season-ending injury to Cam Akers (Achilles) recently.'I don't know that veteran route is something we'll rule out, but it's not something we're looking at right now,' McVay said.
McVay parsed his words with the skill of a veteran head coach, and this news item is an example of Media Ciphering 101 for beginning fantasy football managers: The Rams don't know what they have at running back.
That's the current answer, and this is the case with most teams beyond its second or third running back. Most running backs at the bottom of the depth chart have the job based on special teams and athletic ability.
In L.A.'s case, the team has four backs — three of them have fewer than two years of experience. Even Henderson is a lesser-known commodity for a lead back.
The Rams want to evaluate its current stable of runners and decide whether it needs to sign a veteran back and which veteran offers the best combination of skills and his fit with the scheme and ledger.
Aside from every runner staying healthy through training camp — the most important factor involved with L.A.'s impending decision to add a veteran back — here are the questions facing the Rams before they seek a proven runner via free agency or trade:
- Do they have at least two players who can win in short-yardage?
- Do they have at least two backs who can pass protect?
- Do they have at least two backs who can play in the two-minute offense as receivers?
- Do they have at least two backs who can touch the ball 12-15 times per week without wearing down?
If the team can answer these four questions affirmatively, they won't be signing a veteran. The answers to these questions will also determine which veteran back(s) it targets in free agency or via trade. At this point, the answers to three of these four questions are, at best, incomplete. If the season began today, the answer would be 'no.'
Before we answer those questions, let's begin with the most obvious: Can Darrell Henderson be a lead-back and significant fantasy factor?
What do the Rams have in Darrell Henderson?
I wrote about Henderson last year after studying his early-season performances. While the potential nightmare to Cam Akers' fantasy value didn't play out, the Rams clearly stuck with Akers, who had higher and more recent draft capital despite Henderson displaying greater nuance as a runner between the tackles in 2020.
They may not seem sensible to most of you reading this, but the rationale for this happening is rooted in two common things that are prevalent in the NFL:
- Much of the league still misunderstands and misapplies the idea that running back is instinctive when drafting the position.
- If the player isn't a first- or second-round selection in the NFL Draft, teams label players fast and move on from them even faster.
Henderson ran a lot of man and gap blocking at Memphis and the Rams based its scheme on wide zone. The difference between the schemes at Memphis and Los Angeles as a running back picking an open crease is the difference between fill-in the blank (gap/man) and multiple-choice (zone). The way you approach both methods of questions are completely different and require a different set of skills.
2019 was a lost season for Henderson because he was slow to acclimate to the wide zone scheme. Chick Corea, one of my favorite musicians, recently posted a video discussing the difference between memorizing and knowing when it comes to musicians learning the harmonic structure of songs.
Corea explains memorizing as consciously recalling the information as if you're reading something written down from a mental page or screen in your brain. Knowing is an ingrained process in your subconscious that you do without thinking—breathing, walking, and eating are basic examples.
Henderson had memorized the wide zone plays but he didn't know how to run them. You could see this with his preseason performances. He was tentative with some reps and made poor choices with others.
This is a normal issue for gap runners entering the NFL because the way to run each blocking scheme is so different. David Johnson, Marlon Mack, and Tevin Coleman are prime examples of productive fantasy performers who needed at least a year to acclimate to the new scheme.
When the Rams parted ways with Todd Gurley and drafted Akers in the second round, a back with more zone experience but still more comfortable with gap plays, it reinforced the Rams' view of the position, and that Henderson's initial struggles led them to write Henderson off as the future primary back at the position after just one year — and it's clear the Rams' approach to drafting backs set up Henderson to initially struggle. Why it didn't expect Henderson to need greater acclimation is sheer ignorance.
Akers struggled initially with the Rams' zone concepts, while Henderson showed dramatic improvement during his second year.
Henderson displayed big-play and short-yardage skills with zone, gap, and Duo blocking last year. He earned 2.5 yards before contact, tied with Derric Henry, Melvin Gordon, and Aaron Jones within the top-20 backs in this category last year. Malcolm Brown, the team's best zone runner, earned 2.7 yards before contact. While many see this stat as purely a reflection of how big or effective a crease is, it can also be an important indicator of how effectively a player sets up zone creases.
If you examine this advanced rushing statistic in more detail, you'll notice that Raheem Mostert, Damien Harris, and Johnathan Taylor are at the top of the list for runners. All three play in a scheme where they run a significant number of gap plays designed to open one crease. If the play is effective, it's often because the hole is wide open, whereas zone runners have to manipulate the defensive front to create openings.
The fact that Henderson ranks this high — including higher than Akers — matches what I described above about their play in 2020 as well as what's on the film. The fact that Henderson broke two more tackles on seven fewer carries than Akers is also an indicator that Henderson was consistently running with greater purpose than Akers last year. I mean that Henderson was playing more and thinking less, which led to being in a better position to win against contact than Akers, who was still acclimating.
None of this is to say that Akers isn't good or lacked the promise many were touting this summer, especially with the opportunity the Rams were giving. It is simply underscoring that L.A. saw Akers, a second-round pick, as the future and didn't remain patient with Henderson, a third-round pick who was inadvertently set up to struggle in year one.
At 5-8 and 207 pounds, Henderson is two inches shorter and nine pounds lighter than Akers. There are plenty of productive backs past and present who are within this range and earned the lead roles for their team:
- Barry Sanders: 5-8, 200
- Emmitt Smith: 5-9, 216
- Walter Payton: 5-9, 200
- Chris Johnson: 5-11, 195
- Dalvin Cook: 5-10, 210
- Christian McCaffrey: 5-11, 205
- Priest Holmes: 5-9, 213
- DeAngelo Williams 5-9, 207
- Jamaal Charles: 5-11, 199
I could find more, but you don't need an exhaustive list to see the commonalities in style. Most on this listen possessed Henderson's explosive burst, long speed, receiving skills, and efficient change of direction. Several of them also had compact builds to at least bounce off hits.
Henderson's yards after contact per rush in 2020 was 2.0, which tied him with David Johnson, Antonio Gibson, Latavius Murray, Josh Jacobs, Frank Gore, Myles Gaskin, and Frank Gore among the top 30 backs that qualified. While not a great figure, it's respectable and only 0.1 yard-per-carry worse than Akers.
Henderson reads the box, efficiently manipulates creases, and earns yardage with a combination of his burst, sharp footwork, and low center of gravity. He also tracks and catches the ball well with various targets, posing a threat with screens and in the intermediate and deep passing game.
Remember, this is a back that left tackle Andrew Whitworth told the media had amazing upside and was excited to see Henderson's sophomore effort after the club drafted Akers.
This matters to me as an evaluator because it wasn't a coach doing the typical public relations confidence booster to a young player through the media. Whitworth is a team leader and anchor in this offense.
And most important, I've learned more about running back play listening to offensive linemen and middle linebackers than I have from any other position, including running backs. These two positions understand the complete picture of the athletic skills, decision-making, and feel that runners must possess.
Henderson has proven that he can at least split the workload in L.A. If he can prove that he can handle the pass protection duties we often saw assigned to Brown, he could earn the lead role 15-17 touches per game. Last year, he averaged 10 touches per game on a team that used a three-back split for most of the year, so it's not a significant increase.
The key for Henderson to earn the 14-17 touches per game will likely be the baseline average for him to have a shot at top-12 fantasy upside is his pass protection skills and whether the Rams are confident enough in its depth chart not to sign a veteran. The performance of the depth chart is important to Henderson's upside because if the coaches lack confidence in Xavier Jones or Jake Funk to deliver some redundancy of skills in these key areas described earlier, the veteran back that the team adds in response may help or hurt Henderson's value.
For instance, adding Adrian Peterson could hurt Henderson's touch upside in the ground game but not hurt his work in the passing game. But Peterson's style could still keep Henderson in the loop in the red zone, especially considering that Swift's touchdown total (8) was the better half of a near split with Peterson (7) last year.
However, a back like LeVeon Bell could keep Henderson's targets and red zone touches at a minimum. This is why addressing Henderson's game sets the table best for answering the rest of the questions about the team's depth chart and decisions that may come from those answers.
Aside from Henderson, short-yardage is an unknown. Calais is a space player with limited power and fighting for a special team's spot. He's easy to eliminate from contention here. In fact, Calais is the most likely of the top four players on the current depth chart to get cut. The reason is Funk, a speedster from the University of Maryland who began his career at Wisconsin as a linebacker. Funk's tackling ability provides versatility on special teams that Calais lacks.
However, Funk is also an unlikely answer. He was at his best running draws and delays — plays designed to recreate open-field space as much as possible. When it comes to running gap and zone plays, Funk displayed some fundamental issues while at Maryland. He repeatedly worked too close to pulling blockers as a gap runner, and when executing cutbacks on zone plays, he lacks the awareness and the feel for getting his frame small enough through the crease to avoid contact with his own lineman. He frequently tripped over his own blockers on these plays.
While these issues aren't as troublesome between the 20s, and he often set up runs effectively with his movement skills, the compressed boxes in short-yardage situations require quicker processing and more efficient movement than Funk has displayed. His power is also more momentum-dictated with a big downhill runway as his aid and less effective in close quarters.
Funk is getting a lot of love from draftniks and analysts who touted his speed and flashes of big plays. Still, the questions about his game that need answering are big enough that he'll need to prove himself in the first half of preseason games or else whatever training camp buzz he earns will be more fluff than substance for fantasy managers.
Jones is the true wildcard for almost every meaningful question that the team needs to answer this summer. His 2020 Rookie Scouting Portfolio report reveals why:
A fifth-year senior, Jones earned an extra year after missing all but two games in 2016 with a broken foot. He capped his career at SMU with a 1,366-yard, 25-touchdown campaign and averaged 5.2 yards per touch.
He’s a sudden scatback with excellent acceleration and change of direction that ran gap and (inside and outside) zone concepts as well as Duo [All blocking schemes the Rams used last year]. A decisive gap runner who can set up creases with subtle changes to the pacing and length of his gait, Jones is also patient enough to find [rare] cutbacks on a gap play like Power.
Jones is well suited to zone blocking because of his skill for manipulating opponents and changing direction. He’ll bait a defender handling the backside gaps with a small dip or hesitation to freeze the opponent’s pursuit so he can bounce to the next crease. Pressing inside and bouncing outside is his favorite tactic, and he depends on it too much, ignoring creases straight ahead of him because he’s hoping to generate a bigger lane outside.
Jones doesn’t like cramming the ball inside on zone plays when there’s an unblocked defender that will be waiting on the other side of the hole. The idea of defeating that opponent one-on-one doesn’t appeal to him and Jones leaves yards on the field because of it.
Jones flips his hips on a dime, and he has a tight and sudden spin that can get him away from a defensive tackle’s penetration even when he identifies the attack late. When he doesn’t have time to juke or stack moves, Jones can point the toe in the direction he wants to turn, open his hips, and bounce or cut back effectively...
Jones authored a lot of big plays last year, because he combines his excellent change of direction quickness and his sudden acceleration. He gets downhill fast enough to accelerate by linebackers and defensive backs for gains of 40-60 yards.
Jones lacks the long speed to sustain separation or to pull away more and it means he has to dodge cornerbacks or safeties that were playing deep. This slows him down and allows linebackers to eventually catch him after gaining 35-60 yards. Cornerbacks can catch him once they can earn angle with all of the weaving in traffic that Jones does.
Jones is either lighter than his listed weight or he’s not a well-balanced runner. Linebackers wrap and pull Jones backwards just as he’s beginning to hit creases. He’s also dropped fast when a linebacker can pursue down the line on toss plays.
Jones falls forward and extends his frame 1-2 yards and until he must do so, Jones keeps moving through contact. He uses his free arm to pull through the wrap of a backside defender or use the stiff-arm to ward off a reach by a pursuing defender from the inside. With enough momentum, Jones can run through the backside wraps of defensive linemen.
Jones can extend through direct contact for 1-2 yards against a linebacker’s hit when he accelerates into the contact and gets low with his pads. He does this well as a short-yardage runner on the perimeter. He can knock down a linebacker in a head-on collision when he drops his pads early enough during a downhill run. Jones stalemated defensive linemen hitting him from an angle...
Jones carries the ball under either sideline arm based on the position of the pursuit. He keeps the ball high to his chest, but the elbow remains loose from his frame. He swings the ball as he runs and this has to stop. Jones fumbled 11 times in 775 touches during his career, turning the ball over at a rate of 1 per 66 touches. This places Jones on the low-end of the RSP’s Committee Tier for Ball Security. Only 6 of the 55 running backs studied this year had worse rates.
While not a great short-yardage back in college, his technique showed promise for improvement. Coupled with his prowess for versatility with blocking schemes, there's enough reason to grab Jones as a late-round flier or free agent in drafts before NFL training camps or during the first 1-2 weeks of August.
If this area is the only question mark for the depth chart, Adrian Peterson, Todd Gurley, LeSean McCoy, Frank Gore, Alfred Morris, LeVeon Bell, and T.J. Yeldon are probably on the shortlist for a back who can pair with Henderson and short-yardage work is a significant demand for the role. I placed these backs in order based on a combination of skills and perception of the player's ability to be a good professional based on past behavior.
Jones once again remains the key figure in this equation. Here's the RSP's assessment:
Jones has technical mishaps that he must address as a pass protector. He’ll square opponents, but he overextends and punches with a jab rather than an uppercut where he can roll upward through a strong base.
Jones catches violent contact more often than he delivers it. When he can punch with an uppercut, he doesn’t roll through his hips to generate the power he should and his lack of pop with his punches gives opponents second chances to work free and reach the quarterback. He earns enough depth into the line that he’s been more successful holding off pressure so his quarterback has enough time to get rid of the ball. But without the technique to redirect his opponents, NFL defenders will push him back into the lap of a quarterback or run by him after first contact.
In my experience, Jones' flaws are correctable. He has likely developed into a better puncher. The real question will be how assignment-sound he will be with blitz packages. If he has issues diagnosing the correct assignment and he's still not much of a puncher, it will be one of the greatest indicators that the Rams will be signing a veteran back this summer.
Funk is a better lead blocker than a stand-up pass protector. He must close the gap between himself and the defender to deliver his hands effectively. He also displayed confusion with his assignments when multiple blitzers worked through the same area. While Funk could improve as a rookie, the current odds are better than Jones is the superior pass rusher at this point. I'm writing off Calais as a factor.
This is area is likely the biggest reason the Rams will sign a veteran, and it's why I believe it will happen. Gore, Yeldon, McCoy, and Bell are probably the most capable on this list. If one of them is signed, it would be the best possible scenario for Henderson to maintain a lead role and strong volume despite the team adding a veteran. Gore lacks the speed that most teams would desire from a wide zone back, but he's so crafty that I wouldn't write him off as a signing if Henderson plays well enough.
Yeldon would also be an ideal signing for Henderson because Yeldon has a reputation as a passing-down specialist.
Bell still has great ability but may have earned the perception that he puts himself above the team in dysfunctional ways. If he's signed, Henderson's outcome will be at its most unpredictable. McCoy isn't far behind because his play has been less consistent with the Chiefs and Buccaneers.
Funk and Jones display the baseline skills to function as outlet receivers. Neither has shown Jones' ability to stretch the field and track the ball deep. Again, Gore, Yeldon, McCoy, and Bell are a part of this potential list. You can add Duke Johnson Jr, but Johnson's penchant for getting dinged up enough to miss quarters at a time but not appear on the injury report doesn't make him a great candidate for pass protection and short-yardage that the rest of the options on this list can provide.
If Jones and/or Funk can block competently, it's less likely that the Rams will add a runner solely for receiving skills.
What about Todd Gurley?
He knows the offense, and if the time away and Akers injury has given both parties greater perspective on the prospect of a reunion, it would make a lot of sense and possibly be the most sensible short-term solution. The big questions are money and their past relationship.
Jones has shown in college that he can handle a split in reps. He earned 244 attempts and caught 20 balls as a senior. He also had a 150-carry, 28-catch freshman campaign and a 182-carry, 14-catch junior year. Funk has never earned more than 60 rushing attempts and 10 receptions, both senior-year highs at Maryland.
Again, this is why Jones and Henderson are the two key figures under the microscope in the Rams' preseason assessment of runners.
Other outside Considerations
The Rams may also wait to sign a veteran because the pool may get bigger with early-August cuts during training camp. This could include rookies or young players that the team's scouting staff liked from prior drafts or veterans who are potentially equal or greater fits with the offense's needs at a more competitive price than the current free-agent options.
The team may also pursue a low-level trade for a reserve with starter ability. Here are some candidates.
- Matt Breida: An excellent performer with injury issues who could present more value to the Bills via trade than its depth chart if Zack Moss takes a step forward.
- Sony Michel: Another injury-ridden talent with wide zone skills and pass-down prowess who could be available because the Patriots declined his fifth-year option and the team has a stocked depth chart.
- Damien Williams: On a one-year deal in Chicago, and if Khalil Herbert plays well, Williams could be worth more to the Bears via trade than as a reserve.
- Jacques Patrick: The Rams studied Akers enough to probably see Patrick, who can pass protect, catch the ball, and has the size and quickness to deliver as a short-yardage option. He'd be a cheap add if (when) cut by the Bengals.
- Rico Dowdle: If Sewo Olonilua and JaQuan Hardy play well enough, Dowdle could be expendable via trade because I doubt he'd get cut. Still, an offer with some added sweetener could make Dowdle a cheap-ish add via trade.
- Royce Freeman: Most will pan his speed and declare him a bad fit for the scheme, but Malcolm Brown is a similar back and performed well. With Mike Boone likely ahead of Freeman, a trade or waiver pickup is likely.
- Melvin Gordon: The Broncos could save $6.9 million if it trades Gordon, and with Javonte Williams and Mike Boone in the fold, they can live with Freeman one more year as a third option.
- Mark Ingram: A smart zone runner with enough left to be a co-starter, the Texans have enough backs to deal Ingram and get something in return that this team needs.
- Joshua Kelley: If Kelley's rookie year led the Chargers' new regime to write him off prematurely, he could be a short- and long-term bargain for the Rams.
- Kalen Ballage: If cut, Ballage could be a cheap option as a change of pace.
- Alex Collins: The veteran performed well in spot duty last year and spring OTAs this year. But if cut, he'd be a worthwhile bargain due to his proven skills.
- Rashaad Penny: A speedster with gap skills who still has to prove his worth in zone would fit the blindspot this team has had with backs in the draft, but not necessarily free agency.
- C.J. Prosise: Like Penny when he entered the league, but he has worked on his zone deficiencies. The Rams might be his best shot to prove he can be a contributor and not the butt-end of a crowded Buccaneers depth chart.
- Lamar Miller: If recovered from the ACL tear without significantly diminished skills, Miller is a perfect fit for this scheme and a proven player with upside as a one-year option.
As you can see, there's a lot unanswered with this Rams situation, but knowing the questions this team needs to answer makes it easier to see the potential directions it can go.
In easy bullet points:
- Darrell Henderson has the most upside on the team, and it's far more likely that he performs at or close to fantasy RB2 territory than low-end RB3 territory like last year. He has top-15 upside if the team doesn't add a veteran or only adds a veteran known for pass protection.
- Xavier Jones is worth adding right now as a cheap investment. His growth potential at SMU was good enough to deliver fantasy RB3 value this year if he has a great camp and keeps the Rams off the waiver wire or trade block.
- Stay away from Jake Funk. There's enough on film to indicate that his analysis has been influenced too much by speed and not enough with fundamental aspects of running back play.
- If one of the available free agents is added soon—Gore, Gurley, Peterson, Yeldon, Bell, or McCoy—it's likely a sign that they are worried about their depth but may not be a value-killer for Henderson just yet. He could be worth buying low from a panicky manager. Read my thoughts on the free agents for more.
- There are many viable matches about to be cut or available through trade that the Rams could be shopping for. If you have a back on the "Outside Considerations" list, hold them. If you don't but have room for some luxury additions from the free-agent pool, start shopping.