Prior to the onset of the 2016 NFL season, Los Angeles Rams' (now former) head coach Jeff Fisher made one thing abundantly clear: the Rams were going to run the football.
And they did...just very unsuccessfully. Behind shoddy offensive line play, 2015's Offensive Rookie of the Year Todd Gurley struggled to get things going on the ground -- finishing the year with 885 yards on 278 carries (3.2 ypc). He finished his rookie campaign with over 1,100 yards on 49 less touches.
Rams' backup running back Benny Cunningham, however, proved serviceable in 2016; often providing the team with a much-needed spark on offense. "Backup," however, is a term that should be used loosely, considering that Cunningham finished third in carries in 2016 (with a paltry 21 attempts), behind Gurley and WR Tavon Austin, who carried the ball 28 times.
But, despite the limited workload last season, he finished the year with 101 rush yards, good for 4.8 ypc.
It's, understandably, hard to get excited about a 100-yard season. And if not for a new coaching staff, it would almost be expected that Cunningham - who's now a free agent - would be signing elsewhere next month when free agency begins.
Cunningham’s workload in the run game has diminished each of the last three seasons, going from 66 carries in 2014 to the aforementioned 21 touches last season. If not for his role as the Rams' primary kick returner, Jeff Fisher, in all likelihood, would've made Cunningham part of his annual running back purge.
So what is it, exactly, that Cunningham brings to the table? And why should the Rams consider retaining him for 2017, and potentially beyond?
Here’s a glimpse or four...
The Buccaneers, given the down and distance, only send four. But two cuts on this play allow the Rams to keep the drive alive. If Cunningham cuts inside, behind the blocking center, this play probably ends at the Rams 30-yard line forcing the all-too-regular punt. Note how Benny utilizes the stutter step to freeze the safety, allowing him not only to pick up the first down, but gain another seven yards.
It’s 3rd and 11, and this play - from the moment Case Keenum throws it - has “typical Rams’ 3rd down” written all over it. The line is losing the battle of the trenches and Case is forced to throw a short, almost ill-advised, pass to Benny, who’s standing at the line of scrimmage with the linebacker (Lavonte David) in prime position to have Johnny Hekker punting from the end zone.
Cunningham comes up just short of the line of gain, but his awareness prior to the catch and ability to quickly get upfield highlight his strengths as a pass-catcher.
Read the Field, Hit the Hole
Tyler Higbee is a tad slow in recognizing the blitz from safety Rontez Miles on this play, but Cunningham once again makes a critical cut that prevents a six yard loss. The result is a 24-yard gain.
Notice that Cunningham sees the hole and accelerates. If he bounces this outside, this play is over at the line of scrimmage.
Fight for that Yardage!
It’s 4th and 9 and Benny wants that 1st down. He catches the ball seven yards shy of the marker, and is able to elude five defenders in the open field to get the first down.
As previously stated, Benny’s primary role for the Rams is on special teams as their kick returner. And he’s no slouch at that either.
Benny Cunningham KR Stats/Rankings
Is he Devin Hester? No.
Is he worth re-signing? Given his ability to contribute on offense and special teams, I say yes.
A few things to consider...
- It’s hard to say how McVay and the new staff will run the offense, outside of speculation, but Gurley will clearly be the RB1 going forward. If Cunningham isn’t offered a larger role in the offense, could he walk? I wouldn’t blame him. There’s money to be had.
- The RB position isn’t valued liked it was in years past. So what’s the cost? If you’re not taking a RB in the first round of the NFL Draft, you’re most likely taking one in the mid-to-late rounds. If Cunningham is looking to get paid, and he’s earned that right, the Rams could look to replace him with a) a player already on the roster, or b) a late-round player eager to join an NFL team regardless of the paycheck.
- Cunningham has already tested the waters. On March 11, 2016 Cunningham was one of seven players that visited the New England Patriots. Chris Hogan, who scorched the Steelers in the AFC Championship game (to the tune of 9 receptions for 180 yards and two touchdowns) made the squad. It’s fair to assume that Benny wasn’t offered a spot, or else he’d be sizing himself for a Super Bowl ring right now.
- The John Fassel persuasion. Fassel was one of the few coaches retained from the fallout of the Fisher regime...and rightfully so, as the special teams bunch was the standout amongst the three phases. It remains to be seen whether McVay views Cunningham as an asset to their offense, but a good word from a respected coordinator might go a long way in not only returning a reliable ST’s player, but viable backup running back.
- Don’t let another good one walk. Cunningham, an undrafted free agent, has served the Rams well over the past four years. Reward him for it. Don’t let him be another Rodney McLeod story, where he’s balling out for another team while clearly missed on this one.