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Is Darrell Henderson a top-25 running back?

How far down the rankings did the Rams fall with the Cam Akers injury?

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NFL: Los Angeles Rams OTA Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

During the entire 2021 offseason, I don’t recall hearing a single person hype up the “duo of Cam Akers and Darrell Henderson” that would man the LA Rams backfield this season. I know I read and participated in some debate about whether or not Akers would become a “top-10 running back”. I speculated that if Akers was going to be a true number one, that Henderson might even be worth putting on the trade block — should a team lose their “true number one”.

(It turns out that the team that needed to trade for Henderson was the Rams all along.)

But there was never any discussion about whether or not there would be a battle in training camp to start at running back between Akers and Henderson because no discussion was warranted. Sean McVay and the universe both gave Henderson an opportunity to win the job going into 2020 — Todd Gurley was released, Akers had his rookie offseason discombobulated by the pandemic and then was hurt, Malcolm Brown continued to be Malcolm Brown — and by midseason his role had been whittled down to being an insurance policy for Akers.

A policy that has now been cashed in.

As the 70th overall pick of the 2019 NFL Draft, Henderson was the third running back drafted after Josh Jacobs and Miles Sanders. Two seasons later, Henderson has the ninth-most rushing yards out of his draft class, behind Jacobs (first) and Sanders (third), but also after David Montgomery, Devin Singletary, Alexander Mattison, Tony Pollard, Benny Snell, Jr., and quarterback Kyler Murray.

Through two seasons, Henderson has carried the ball 177 times (fewer carries than 2019 seventh round pick Myles Gaskin) and rushed for 771 yards and five touchdowns. Henderson has also caught 20 passes for 196 yards, which ranks as the ninth-most receiving yards among running backs in his class, even falling behind the ranks of sixth round pick Ty Johnson.

Though Henderson may have been the third-best running back prospect in what has turned out to be a relatively weak 2019 class, he has so far fallen behind Jacobs, Sanders, Montgomery, and Singletary, three of whom have rushed for more than double the number of career yards as Henderson, and Singletary is not far away from double.

On top of those four, Patriots running back Damien Harris, who went 17 picks after Henderson, may have also passed by and gotten ahead of Henderson by now; Harris had three 100-yard rushing efforts in his first six starts for New England last season.

Henderson is still sitting on one career game over 90 rushing yards.

He was also never really stuck behind Gurley or any other Rams running back. Amid Gurley’s nightmare struggle through the 2019 campaign, Henderson saw double-digit snaps only three times and he played third string behind both Gurley and Brown. Henderson’s best game during his rookie season was an 11-carry, 49-yard effort in a 24-10 win over the Bengals, the worst team in the league.

The response to Henderson’s rookie campaign was not to usher in his era after releasing Gurley, but to spend their first pick in the 2020 draft on a different running back, and by the end of Akers’ debut season we saw that these two backs were not necessarily meant to complement one another.

Between Week 2 and Week 7, Henderson averaged 31 snaps per game, which is roughly a little less than 50% of the offensive snaps.

The rest of the snaps were typically going to Brown in that time, and then in Week 8, Brown played in 60% of the snaps, Akers played in 21%, and Henderson only played in 19%.

You may see or have already seen some stats or tweets going around that Henderson was one of the best running backs in the league in the first half of 2020. It is truly the greatest flaw of analytics and statistics that many people or sites who push them on you will also completely ignore the real world in favor of what the numbers “tell” them.

PFF: “Darrell Henderson was our highest graded running back through Week 8!”

Sean McVay (He’s the head coach of the Los Angeles Rams): “You guys know that I essentially benched your highest-graded running back, right? How do these grades work, fellas?”

That was the beginning of the end for Henderson’s opportunity to be LA’s number one running back, as the Rams were struggling to consistently score more than 20 points with him as the starter. This is not to blame Henderson for LA’s offensive problems in the last two seasons (he’s definitely not the reason that the team traded out Jared Goff for Matthew Stafford) but regardless of how much these problems fall on the running back position, we can at least confirm that the Rams never played better last season than they did with Cam Akers as the starter.

McVay finally turned things over to Akers full-time in Week 13 against the Arizona Cardinals, giving him 63% of the snaps, and LA won 38-28. The next week, Akers rushed for 171 yards in a 24-3 win over the Patriots. Henderson played in 24 total snaps over those two games, and Brown played in 19. They weren’t really complements to Akers, so much as they were there to make sure he didn’t get worn out during his first season.

Henderson then returned to start in place of an injured Akers against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 16, rushing 12 times for 62 yards and receiving zero targets in the passing game. The Rams lost 20-9 and Henderson was placed on injured reserve for the rest of the year.

In the postseason, Akers saw virtually all of the key snaps at running back (including 96% of the snaps against the Packers in the divisional round) and he rushed for 221 yards in two games. Coming out of the 2020 season, nobody questioned who the starting running back for the Rams would be in 2021.

And now with Akers out of the picture for the entire season, nobody will question whether or not Henderson is the starting running back for the LA Rams in 2021. That’s understandable given what other options McVay has right now — Henderson is the only running back on the roster to have taken an offensive snap in the NFL — but nobody in their right mind would say that Henderson is nearly as good as Akers, a player who not only outshined him on the film and in the box scores last season, but who also did it at the age of 21.

Henderson will be 24 next month.

Now, whether or not Darrell Henderson will perform like a different running back with Matthew Stafford as the quarterback of the Rams offense remains to be seen. Consider the case of Gurley, who certainly played like a different back for McVay than he did for Jeff Fisher, thanks to a better supporting cast and offensive system. Or Ronald Jones of the Buccaneers, who seems to be a lot more effective with Tom Brady than he was with Jameis Winston as Tampa Bay’s quarterback.

Henderson could play much better in 2021, but there’s no denying that he was not nearly as effective as Akers last season, and he might not even have been McVay’s preferred option over Brown. Anyone who says that analytics or advanced stats paint a picture that shows Henderson and Akers were in the same ballpark of value to LA is ignoring wide swaths of important context.

And it’s not just that the Rams had two capable starting running backs and one simply beat out the other. The truth is that through his first two seasons, Darrell Henderson has not proven that he is an NFL starting running back. In what context could you possibly draw up any answer to the contrary?

So knowing that, does Henderson enter the 2021 season as one of the top-20 running backs in the NFL? What about top-30?

Let’s start with the players who seem to emphatically be ranked ahead of most of the league’s runners:

  • Derrick Henry, Dalvin Cook, Nick Chubb, Ezekiel Elliott, Aaron Jones, Christian McCaffrey, Alvin Kamara, Saquon Barkley, Kareem Hunt

I think we can reasonably open the conversation with those nine running backs. Even if Hunt is a backup to Chubb, he still rushed for more yards in 2020 than Henderson has in his career. Hunt had 1,145 total yards and 11 touchdowns with the Browns last season.

The next group could end up in the top-10 by the end of the season or has been effective for two or more years now:

  • Jonathan Taylor, James Robinson, Josh Jacobs, Ronald Jones, Miles Sanders, David Montgomery, J.K. Dobbins, D’Andre Swift, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Chris Carson, Austin Ekeler, Joe Mixon

That’s another 12 running backs, giving us a total of 21 before I think we can reasonably get to anyone on the Rams. Were Akers healthy, he would definitely belong on this list and perhaps near the top of it (though right now it is not in any particular order).

And I will also repeat that this does not mean that I think Darrell Henderson is incapable of more. It is not a condemnation of his potential, it’s just a reality that set in after Akers went down: the only running back on the roster with any experience has had disappointing moments throughout his first two seasons. I believe that if most were building an offense for the 2021 season right now, they would usually choose one of those 21 running backs over Henderson.

Of course, some of them have much different job titles within playing running back — you wouldn’t confuse Austin Ekeler for Henderson, but both are essentially “situational running backs” who are just used in different situations — I would still say these players warrant more confidence headed into training camps.

I also think that for the person building a 2021 roster, they would probably choose one of the rookie running backs over some of the players listed above. None are more obvious than first round picks Najee Harris and Travis Etienne.

That puts us at 23 running backs.

Maybe at this point we get to a mishmash of rookies, second-year players, and running backs who, like Henderson, find themselves trying to prove their worth at a pivotal moment in their careers:

Zack Moss, Antonio Gibson, Javonte Williams, A.J. Dillon, Damien Harris, Michael Carter, Sony Michel, Phillip Lindsay, Kenyan Drake, Mike Davis, Leonard Fournette, Raheem Mostert, Devin Singletary, David Johnson, Trey Sermon, Rashaad Penny, Alexander Mattison, Latavius Murray, Mark Ingram

That’s roughly my “24 to 42” range for NFL running backs, I guess, including Henderson. There are names in there who could pop into the top-15 next season and perhaps Henderson will be one of them. He’s one of the few who has an incredible opportunity to start before training camp even begins. When looking at some of the others, compare to Henderson and see how that looks:

Zack Moss or Darrell Henderson?

Antonio Gibson or Darrell Henderson?

Mike Davis or Darrell Henderson?

Phillip Lindsay or Darrell Henderson?

Damien Harris or Darrell Henderson?

Los Angeles Rams v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

Over at PFF, Henderson did not make their list of the top-32 running backs entering the 2021 season and no, they didn’t explain why they didn’t care for their own grades from last season. That would require PFF to admit some things they don’t want to admit. Those who did make the top-32 includes many of the names listed here, but also several that haven’t: Melvin Gordon (17th), Tony Pollard (21st), Nyheim Hines (27th), James White (29th), and Chase Edmonds (30th).

Sporting News ranked Henderson 25th for fantasy football purposes, but he also fell behind Myles Gaskin (19th), another back I haven’t listed yet.

Some will also even question if Darrell Henderson beats out Xavier Jones for LA’s starting running back position by Week 1. Henderson was expected to push Gurley for attempts in 2019, but he didn’t. He was supposed to take the reins in 2020 and then run with the starting job when he got it, but he didn’t.

He’s supposed to win the Rams starting job this season. And I believe that odds are in his favor. But ...

McVay says that the team does not intend to add a running back right away, but this tells me more about his confidence in Jones, Jake Funk, Raymond Calais, and Otis Anderson than it does about Henderson. It also tells me that the Rams know that they’ll have better running back options to choose from in early September, after final cuts, than choosing between Gurley and Adrian Peterson in July. That doesn’t make any sense.

I noted a trade option from all 16 AFC teams, and I do think that several names on that list will become available in the coming weeks, perhaps through a release or on waivers. This player may not replace Henderson as the starter, but reinforcements do appear to be necessary unless Jones or Funk also prove to be better than expected.

Right now, I would rank Darrell Henderson as roughly the 30th-best running back in the NFL. That puts him in a range around 25-35, realistically.

If this feels “negative” I would caution you to avoid those feelings because let’s keep in mind that the Rams did not have a player with 700 rushing yards in 2020 and they reached the divisional round of the playoffs with a banged up version of Jared Goff. The Rams took care of their greatest need and that’s what is most important, not the fact that they won’t have Akers, even if he is the best running back on the team.

Everyone is allowed to their own opinions, including about how the NFL’s top-50 running backs are ranked. In fact, it should be signed into law that everyone is required to submit a “top-50” for running backs each year. And if that law already existed, I do believe that we’d find out that the LA Rams probably lost a top-15 running back to a torn Achilles and right now are replacing him with a back who might not rank in the top-30. Not based on what we’ve seen so far.

What are we going to see next?