The 2016 NFL Draft came and went without the Rams significantly investing in the running back position for the first time in Jeff Fisher’s tenure.
Last year the Rams selected Todd Gurley with the 10th overall pick of the 2015 NFL Draft, signaling the beginning of a new era in the Rams’ backfield. Despite not playing the first three games, Gurley had a terrific rookie year, earning NFC Offensive Rookie of the Year accolades, endorsements and national recognition.
Veteran Benny Cunningham has proven to be one of the more versatile backups/special teamers in the league, leading the NFC in kickoff return average in 2015 (27.5 yards per attempt) and placing fourth overall in 2016 (28.6 YPA). He also spelled Gurley, catching 26 passes out of the Rams’ backfield for 250 yards and excelling in pass protection.
The Rams have a solid one-two punch on their roster for 2016. What about the other guys?
Last year, the Rams kept five running backs on the 53-man and one on the practice squad. Promising backup Trey Watts was placed on the suspended list for a substance violation, and would be indefinitely suspended a short time later for similar reasons.
This year, it is Tre Mason who unfortunately is falling on some difficult times of his own. Based on reports, it appears that he is in need of some serious counseling after a series of incidents dating back to just after the offseason began. The Rams designated Mason as “Did Not Report”, so his future with the team is still very much in doubt.
Special teams stalwart Chase Reynolds continues to make a case for a spot on the 53-man, but there may be other young players that can help contribute at other positions of need (namely wide receiver and tight end). Reynolds has seen zero snaps on offense in five years with the Rams, meaning he is treated as the emergency RB.
Malcolm Brown, Terrence Magee and Aaron Green each offer a complimentary skillset.
Brown is a big, powerful downhill runner with enough burst to challenge the second level of defenses, and earned a promotion to the active roster in late 2015. It’s destiny that he wears #39, that of former Rams star RB Steven Jackson.
Magee has a similar skillset to Brown, but is not quite as big and athletic. He would make an excellent practice squad candidate, however, as a team always needs an extra north-sound grinder at running back.
Green is a rookie change-of-pace back with some amazing ankles/feet. His ability to make people miss in the open field plus an incredible pass blocking efficiency last year (no pressures allowed in 40+ snaps) earned him a spot on the Rams as an UDFA. Our own Brandon Bate sees him as Sproles Lite, and I can’t disagree. He’s fun to watch.
Clearly, Gurley and Cunningham are locks to make the team. Cunningham was tendered this offseason at the 2nd-round level, meaning the Rams did not want to lose him. After that, it gets a bit muddy.
Reynolds is a good special teamer, but is that enough to keep him over some of the other young talent at RB? Does it make sense to keep a veteran just for special teams? I’m not so sure, but special teams has been the difference in a lot of games.
Brown has the size and speed combination that Fisher values and was already promoted to the active roster last year, so I think he’s sitting pretty. He also had a very good first preseason game, rushing for 66 yards against players likely to make the Cowboys’ 53-man.
Green deserves a chance to make the roster, given that the Rams could use his quickness and agility out of the backfield as both a pass catcher and a runner. He caught a 9-yard touchdown from Sean Mannion in the first preseason game on a beautiful route out of the backfield, then diving at the pylon. This was against players not likely to make the Cowboys’ regular season roster, but he has earned more looks.
That leaves us with Magee, who I think has some value but very likely will be the odd man out once the 53 is announced. I do, however, think the Rams will stash him on the practice squad as insurance.
Impact on Final Roster
Earlier this week 3k gave his updated 53-man roster projection, and thought the Rams would keep four RB’s: Gurley, Cunningham, Reynolds and Brown.
I think, however, that based on the unique skillset that Aaron Green brings to the table, and if he continues to excel in his preseason snaps at running back, it’s going to be very hard to cut him in favor of Chase Reynolds.
That’s why I think that ultimately the Rams will carry five running backs into the season, with Green as the fifth addition. Magee will go on the practice squad, and Mason will be released or placed on IR with a designation of illness.