Isaiah Pead carried the ball a grand total of 10 times last season. The workload was not quite what the world had in mind when the St. Louis Rams drafted him in the second round of the 2012 NFL Draft. Then again, his limited role in the offense did not come as a complete surprise because the Rams still had Steven Jackson to lean on and the emergence of a solid one-cut runner in seventh-round pick Daryl Richardson.
Pead's future with the team simply looked as thought it would be delayed. Now, with the 2013 NFL Draft just weeks away, the Cincinnati product's future with the Rams is murkier than it was when the curtain fell on his rookie season.
In February at the Combine, both GM Les Snead and head coach Jeff Fisher sounded confident about Pead's future role with the team.
"I'm like a father in this instance," Snead said in Indianapolis when asked about Pead and rookie receiver Chris Givens. "Those two players, Chris really had a nice year, Pead toward the end. As a father figure I always look at it as that was just the freshman year of college and we are going into your sophomore year of college and we expect you to absolutely improve upon what you just did. They are going to have a role."
Snead's "toward the end" reference refers exclusively to the Rams' last game of the season. Prior to that game, the first year running back had just two touches, a reception and a rushing attempt, between Week 7 and Week 16. He carried the ball five times for 21 yards in the season finale against Seattle.
"Richardson is going to have a role, Pead is going to have a role, they are all going to have a role and we are going to utilize those roles," Snead said.
Looking for a 'big back'
The running backs, and the entire offense for that matter, will look different this year as the team embarks on its first season almost a decade without Steven Jackson as the focal point of the offense. Jackson and the Rams worked out an offseason deal giving him the option to void the final year of his contract, saving the team $7 million. Less than two weeks into free agency, Fisher revealed that the Rams would like to find another "big back" to replace Jackson in the lineup.
Workhorse running backs have been a staple of Fisher's offenses over the years. Prior to last year when Steven Jackson averaged 16 rushing attempts per game, the last time one of Fisher's teams had a running back averaging fewer than 19 carries per game was during Chris Johnson's 2008 rookie season in Tennessee. CJ2K, before he earned that moniker, averaged 16.7 carries per game splitting time with LenDale White.
At the Combine, Fisher assured the media that Pead had what it takes to carry the ball 20 times per game. His comments and, more tellingly, the Rams draft interests suggest that Fisher and his offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer have other ideas.
Is it that Fisher and Co. don't believe in the combo of Pead and Richardson, or are they just identifying a clear need on the roster without Jackson?
Replacements or a rotation?
The Rams spent big in free agency this year, with that money dedicated mostly to improving the offense. Left tackle Jake Long and tight end Jared Cook combined for $35 million in guaranteed money. Re-signing defensive end William Hayes was the team's third most expensive free agent move, with $5.75 million in guaranteed money. Together, those moves leave the Rams tightly squeezed against the salary cap this year, and the front office will likely have to make a few more moves to clear space for the rookies.
Big spending does not necessarily rule out a veteran running back to replace Jackson -- they could always lure someone desperate to keep their career going with a cheap contract long on incentives -- but it does make it far less likely.
If you've followed the list of players making the trek to Rams Park ahead of the draft (or being visited on site by the team's top brass), you'll notice running back prospects command much the calendar. Here are the five running backs, so far, that the Rams have had private visits or workouts with:
Jonathan Franklin, UCLA
Mike Gillislee, Florida
Eddie Lacy, Alabama
Marcus Lattimore, South Carolina
Spencer Ware, LSU
That's a fairly disparate group of running backs. Lacy is considered the top back in the draft, a do-it-all player who really made the most of his opportunities behind Alabama's incredible offensive line. Franklin is a fast riser who impressed teams with tape from his senior season with the Bruins as well as a strong Senior Bowl, the place where the Rams spent time last year with Pead. Those two are the only ones with a chance to go in the first round; Lacy more likely than Franklin.
Pead would complement a back like Lacy or even a healthy Lattimore. Ware is more of a specialist, a player that would handle goal line work and short-yardage situations.
Franklin and Gillislee are similar players, and the only two names on this list weighing less than 210 pounds. While Pead could complement the other backs, he might find playing time more scare with either of these two players on the roster. Both are similar to Pead in size and playing style.
Decisions to make
Barring the usual twists and turns of the NFL Draft, it looks like the Rams will be taking a running back at some point during the selection process, just one year after drafting two running backs and grabbing another rookie, Terrance Ganaway, off the wire.
August's story lines are still over the horizon; however, if current indicators hold, we could be in for a very serious competition at running back. The particulars of that competition could differ. Drafting a back like Lacy, changes it into a battle for a backup or complementary spot. Any one of the others listed here, could mean a free for all for the top spot in the rotation.
Steven Jackson won't be the only running back from the 2012 roster not with the team in 2013.