One of the main reasons that I felt running backs could go earlier than expected in the 2020 NFL Draft is that with a potentially shortened and complicated offseason, a running back potentially carries less risk in the short term and that could appeal to teams over the fact that they carry perhaps the least amount of value in the long term.
The result was that in spite of the fact that the first back didn’t come off the board until Clyde Edwards-Helaire at 32, there were 10 running backs selected in the first three rounds, the most since 2006. The fourth of those 10 was Cam Akers, who the Los Angeles Rams selected with the 52nd overall pick out of Florida State.
The Rams are one of two teams to have drafted a running back on day two in each of the last two years, the other being the Buffalo Bills. And we don’t know yet how the running back duties will be split between him and Darrell Henderson, if there will be a split at all, or that Akers will be the first back on the field.
But we can assume that it is more likely than not that Sean McVay and Les Snead didn’t make Akers their first pick in the draft to have him wait. As I said, these are often short-term investments and teams will use up every ounce of value in that rookie contract that they possibly can.
So what should we expect from Cam Akers?
In the last 10 years, 13 rookie running backs have topped 1,000 yards:
- 1,000-1,150: LeGarrette Blount, Phillip Lindsay, Leonard Fournette, Todd Gurley, Jeremy Hill, Josh Jacobs
- 1,151-1,350: Eddie Lacy, Saquon Barkley, Jordan Howard, Kareem Hunt
- 1,351 and up: Doug Martin, Alfred Morris, Ezekiel Elliott
As I said, it’s hard to maintain a sunny long-term outlook with running backs, even if you drafted them high and they get off to fantastic starts. Most of these backs had or will have difficulty reaching a second contract with the team and in the case of Gurley, he got a second contract but will never play for LA while on it.
Of course, there are examples of players below the 1,000-yard mark who outshined these players long-term or seem like they could.
Nick Chubb fell only four yards shy of 1,000. DeMarco Murray, Le’Veon Bell, Alvin Kamara, David Johnson, Mark Ingram, Derrick Henry, Christian McCaffrey, Marlon Mack, and Aaron Jones didn’t rush for 1,000 yards as rookies. And that’s the real focus here anyway: What can we expect from a rookie running back and specifically, a rookie running back with the Rams.
Over the last 10 years (2010-2019), 43 running backs have been drafted in the first two rounds. Of those, 16 went in the first round (seven in the top-10), and 27 went in the second round. We can say it’s fair to assume that a top-10 pick is going to be treated differently than a pick at the bottom of round two and opportunities are often going to change for situation. But we also know that teams often draft running backs in the late second round to start away, which appears to be the case for Akers.
We have to treat these two players differently though and here’s a good reason why:
In that time, six running backs have been drafted 59-62 — Derrius Guice, Montario Hardesty, LaMichael James, Eddie Lacy, Christine Michael, Daniel Thomas — and they’ve averaged 104 rushing attempts per rookie season. We also know injuries came into play for some of them, as they could for any back. This also wasn’t always the case. Michael didn’t play for the Seattle Seahawks because he wasn’t good. Though they had Marshawn Lynch, Michael also simply was not good.
Of the seven backs taken in the top 10, including Todd Gurley, they averaged 220 carries per rookie season. The expectations are different.
Akers was drafted 52nd and was the fourth running back off the board. I often find it’s the case that the first running back drafted is not the best. Recent exceptions are probably Gurley in 2015 and Elliott in 2016, but Christian McCaffrey has clearly out-performed Leonard Fournette, Le’Veon Bell turned out better than Gio Bernard, and Trent Richardson was a bust. I think even Chubb has built a solid two-year argument over Saquon Barkley, and Chubb was also the fourth running back taken.
Running backs drafted 47-57 range include Joe Mixon, Isaiah Pead, Bell, Toby Gerhart, Miles Sanders, Ameer Abdullah, Bishop Sankey, Jeremy Hill, Shane Vereen, Carlos Hyde, and Mikel Leshoure.
I think this list of names provides a harsh but fair reality that some of the backs you start planning a beautiful fantasy football future for right now (D’Andre Swift, Edwards-Helaire, JK Dobbins, Jonathan Taylor) will simply not play well. Or they’ll get hurt. But some will just not play well. Akers doesn’t have an injury history, which doesn’t make him immune to getting hurt, but is at least some semblance of comfort.
Some of these players came into situations where they could start right away, which is where Akers could also be right now.
Mixon had 178 carries for 626 yards and four touchdowns as a rookie.
Bell had 244 carries for 860 yards and eight touchdowns as a rookie.
Though Bell had more yards, they actually had the exact same 3.52 YPC average, which you know isn’t very good. YPC also isn’t a great stat to use, but DYAR and DVOA both rank Bell as the 28th-best back of 2013. At least, as a runner. Mixon ranked 17th in DYAR and 19th in DVOA as a rookie, and both players got better in the years following.
Sanders, Abdullah, Sankey, Hill, and LeShoure also got significant work as rookies.
Sanders had 179 carries for 818 yards, three touchdowns, and 4.57 YPC last season.
Abdullah had 143/597/4.17/2
Sankey had 152/569/3.74/2
Leshoure had 215/798/3.71/9
Hill had 222/1,124/5.06/9
As encouraging as Hill’s rookie season was, his YPC average dipped by 1.5 yards in year two and when that didn’t recover in year three, the team replaced him with Mixon in the 2017 draft. That was basically the end of his career.
Leshoure actually missed his true rookie season with a torn Achilles and 2012 was his second year in the league. It was also really his only year in the league.
Hyde was third fiddle behind Frank Gore and Colin Kaepernick as a rookie, then missed nine games in year two. He didn’t get off the ground until his third season and actually didn’t top 1,000 yards until last year with the Houston Texans, his sixth season.
But in spite of any idea that you get more immediate success with a rookie running back than maybe any other position, the only true example of a first-year hit in the second round over the last decade might be Eddie Lacy. He was the 61st overall pick to the Green Bay Packers, went to a good team without a clear favorite to start at running back, then got 284 carries playing with Aaron Rodgers, Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, James Jones, David Bakhtiari, Josh Sitton, and T.J. Lang.
Lacy rushed for 1,178 yards, 11 touchdowns, and was ninth in DYAR, but 18th in DVOA.He returned in 2014 to post 1,139 yards, nine touchdowns, and increase his YPC by .5 yards, ranking eighth in DYAR and DVOA.
But then Lacy kept seeing Aaron Rodgers’ number of “8” and was thinking “8? 8? Eight. Eight. Ate? Ate. Ate!” and he was a few Seattle carries away from his career being over in three years. In fact, the long term outlook for almost any second round running back has had a pretty poor track record. Nine of the 27 backs drafted in the second round since 2010 did not post a single season as a starter.
Guice still has a chance, but the other eight do not.
Eight of them have posted one season as a starter, with Sanders, Ronald Jones, and Kerryon Johnson as the only ones who might post a second. T.J. Yeldon stopped at two seasons. Lacy and Hill topped out at three seasons.
Out of 27, here are the big names:
Le’Veon Bell, Dalvin Cook, Joe Mixon, Derrick Henry, Nick Chubb, and Carlos Hyde. And we know that putting Hyde in that tier is generous, while Mixon, Cook, Chubb, and Henry still need “prove it” seasons or at least another follow-up. The fact that Henry got into one MVP conversation is always going to be enough to justify the pick and of course, the Tennessee Titans did a great thing getting him there.
He’s quite an exception. Will Cam Akers be the same exception?
The LA Rams have more positive attributes, I think, than most situations. The offensive line performed poorly last season, but how far did Andrew Whitworth, Rob Havenstein, and Austin Blythe really fall from 2018 and how far do they need to climb up from 2019 to have a positive 2020? Can we not expect improvement from one of their other young linemen?
We also know that the Rams have a couple of elite receiving weapons at receiver, quality tight ends, and a quarterback who has proven in the past that he can be effective at utilizing them. Doing that should theoretically help McVay design better opportunities for Akers, who as you probably know, specializes in creating opportunities for himself already.
There’s also the Gurley factor and weighing how much of last season’s poor performance was related to his potentially ailing body. What could a younger, healthier, maybe faster running back have done last season? What could he do next season?
If you assumed Cam Akers to start 16 games (and that’s a big “IF” in 2020) and to get a comparable workload to 2019 Gurley, then he may get something like 200-240 carries. We saw 220+ carries for three second rounders in the last decade: Hill, Bell, Lacy. The return on those carries was truly all over the place for those backs.
In his prime, Gurley was averaging 4.8 YPC with the Rams in 2017-2018. If Akers could average 4.8 YPC on 200 carries, he’d end with 960 rushing yards. Gurley put up just 3.8 YPC last season, which would result in only 760 rushing yards on 200 carries.
I think based on what we’ve seen from rookie running backs in the last decade, it would be fine to be prepared for Akers to have 800 rushing yards with 4 YPC. We also don’t know if Henderson may come in and outplay him and do much better. Or worse.
As to the receiving game for these backs, I find that to be even harder to predict. It’s part of the game that I think any team will try to develop more of in the early years of their career, especially as it comes to pass blocking and serving as an adequate decoy. My answer there is more: wait and see.
But what this look at running backs of past has done for me is really temper expectations. There are always going to be exceptions and Akers very well may be that, but I tend to stick closer to reality. And as long as he’s healthy and the line improves a bit, the reality should be fairly valuable next season.