With the off-season in the rearview mirror, one where the Rams did not invest significantly in the running back position, all signs were pointing to Cam Akers being a true “workhorse” under Sean McVay in Los Angeles. Then, a few weeks before training camp, Akers tore his Achilles and will be out for all of the 2021 season. After the devastating news, Rams fans and fantasy football fans alike jumped on to Darrell Henderson as the guy that would take over the “workhorse” role that Akers will not be able to fulfill. Yes, Henderson has the opportunity to run with the starting job and never look back, but you have to dig deeper. Once you do that you will soon realize there are multiple other hurdles that Henderson must clear before he is put into that role.
Hurdles for Henderson to Clear Before He’s the #1 Back
Hurdle #1: Henderson has to Stay Healthy
Henderson has missed games in both of his first two seasons in the NFL and has now missed some training camp drills with a new hand injury. If he continues to be easily banged up, look for Xavier Jones to take over this backfield and never look back, much like Akers did in 2020. If Henderson can stay healthy, however, he could be the one to run away with the job. It looked that way, early in 2020, when Henderson was leading the Rams in rushing and getting the team to big wins, but then his injury happened and Akers was able to maintain dominance of the position. Henderson will surely be hungry to not let that happen again, but there is always the risk that injury rears its ugly head.
Hurdle #2: Henderson has Always Split Work, Even in College
In 2017, 2018, and 2019 he split time with Patrick Taylor Jr. and Tony Pollard. In 2019 it was Todd Gurley and Malcolm Brown that he divided carries up with and in 2020 it was Akers and Brown. Also, Henderson only had five rushing touchdowns in college and four in the NFL, so he may end up getting taken out near the goal line for Jones. Just yet another reason to temper expectations for the third-year back with minimal tread on his tires. It can be seen as a bad thing that he has never been “the guy” at his position for his team, but another way of looking at it is that he has a lot less mileage on his legs than most running backs his age do.
Hurdle #3: The Rams Affinity With the Running Back by Committee, at Least to Start the Year
Ever since the Rams rode Gurley’s knee into the ground in 2018, the team has yet to have a 1,000-yard rusher. This is mainly because of the way the offense divides up carries, especially early in the season. Last year’s highest rusher was under 700 yards and it was not until midway through the season when Akers started to separate himself from the rest. That is not to say that someone cannot separate themselves earlier, but it is more likely that it takes a quarter of the season or so to determine how many backs you want to continue to use.
Hurdle #4: Xavier Jones and Jake Funk
These two have been having outstanding training camps and are almost certain locks to make the roster at this point. Jones was a touchdown machine in college and that should probably be his main role right out of the gate. The Rams have struggled in short red-zone situations because of the propensity of their offense to have multiple choices for the QB. Those plays need longer to set up. Instead, the Rams can now use Jones as a bruiser inside the ten and still have Jacob Harris as a lob threat on the boundary. Those are two added dimensions to this offense that have not existed in years past. Funk has been impressive in his chances during the pre-season games and is a favorite of the coaching staff. Don’t be surprised if all three backs are mixed in during at least the first few weeks of the regular season.
Hurdle #5: The Looming Threat of a Free Agent Signing
The Rams are no stranger to bringing in veteran backs off the street during the season–see Anderson, CJ— and there also figure to be a few veteran running backs get cut in the next few weeks as well. The most appealing as of right now are Le’veon Bell and Adrian Peterson and a couple of names that may become available are Royce Freeman and Latavius Murray.
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