The question of whether or not the Los Angeles Rams need to add a running back to replace Cam Akers has yet to really present itself as necessary through the first three weeks of training camp. While Darrell Henderson is entrenched as the starter and won’t appear in the preseason, nobody between Xavier Jones, Jake Funk, or Raymond Calais has stood out — positively or negatively — enough to make the running back “numbers” obvious.
Last season, Sean McVay opted to enter Week 1 with Henderson, Akers, Malcolm Brown, and Jones, eventually adding Calais as a return option.
Injuries through training camp and early in the season prompted the inclusion of Brown into the offensive gameplan on a regular basis and it wasn’t until December that we really saw the impact that a play of Akers’ caliber could have on McVay’s offense. If the Rams are forced to include Jones, Funk, or Calais into the offense as a player getting 20, 30, or 40+ snaps in a game, we don’t know that’s a job that any of them are capable of executing.
We don’t even know if starting for 17 games is a job that Henderson can execute.
LA didn’t have a corresponding running back transaction to the Akers injury and I find that to be misleading. Though McVay may be giving Jones and Funk an opportunity to become complements to the offense in earnest, he wasn’t so forthcoming with snaps when it came to the rookie seasons of Henderson and Akers — and they were day two picks.
It is insulting and incorrect to believe that the mental aspect of football doesn’t apply to running backs. The concept that “running backs don’t matter” relies heavily upon the premise that running backs are mindless drones who only need to be fast and powerful and to be able to identify a lane to hit at 25 MPH. But the NFL is littered with veteran running backs that defy this premise because they aren’t the biggest, the fastest, or the strongest. Any team could save millions of dollars by constantly rotating rookie contract backs through their system — and sure, there are a few teams that abide by this — but there’s a reason that even Malcolm Brown is still competing for carries in the league.
Brown is now with the Miami Dolphins and he’s again just one injury away from starting.
The Rams lost Brown in the offseason and didn’t replace him with a veteran presence. Then they lost Akers, and haven’t replaced him at all. While Henderson’s strengths could be in running outside zone and avoiding running through tackles, LA could potentially use a short-yardage, goal-line, or even receiving back to complement him in 2021. Should Henderson miss any time due to injury, a story that we know is far from a fantasy, then the Rams may need more than just a player to mix in a few times.
There are a few running back competitions going on around the NFL this August and these are some veterans who could be falling out of favor with their respective teams, making them available come September.
David Johnson, Texans
NFL.com’s Gregg Rosenthal recently noted that Johnson “does not look like a starter” and that he has fallen behind both Phillip Lindsay and Mark Ingram for touches. Behind them, Rex Burkhead. It’s not surprising to think that “Patriots: AFC South” likes to have a deep complement of specialized running backs and it could easily be the case that Houston wants to keep Johnson around, even if it’s only for 10-15 snaps per game. Battle Red Blog noted that Johnson’s special is “inside zone” and “can catch passes” so he might perfectly fit with what the Rams want to do.
The fact that former undrafted free agent Scottie Phillips is standing out after also making the final 53-man roster last season, could be another reason that Johnson will be moving soon. The Texans don’t save much by releasing Johnson, but that may not matter, and they could potentially finagle some more savings in trade.
Latavis Murray, Saints
Rosenthal also said that Murray “is not being treated like a guy necessarily guaranteed to make the team” in spite of his production with Sean Payton over the last two seasons and his experience at the position. The Saints added Devonta Freeman recently and they know that the backfield show belongs to Alvin Kamara.
I’m not sure I see Murray as a fit for what LA needs, however. He’s primarily been used as a first-and-10 back, not a goal line threat. Oddly, he did average exactly 4.5 yards per carry on each of first, second, and third down last season. But the vast majority of those reps came on first down, which seems like Henderson’s current territory. Murray may be more insurance to that then he would be a complementary piece.
Sony Michel, Patriots
The Texans aren’t the only team operating like the Patriots. There’s also the Patriots.
New England has Damien Harris as the lead back, plus James White, J.J. Taylor, Brandon Bolden, Rhamondre Stevenson, and Michel as complements. The breakout performances of Stevenson in training camp and the first preseason game suggests that the Patriots could feel comfortable with at least four running backs on the team, even after parting with Michel, if they choose to do so.
The former first round running back has not stood out in camp and he’s been talked about as being on the trading block for weeks, if not months.
Michel had 79 carries for 449 yards over nine games last season. In the two seasons prior to that, he was unquestionably the team’s number one option at the position, but his production and consistency waned between 2018 and 2019. Michel had six third down attempts in 2020 and he too was more of a first-and-10 back for the Patriots.
Here’s what Bernd Buchmasser of Pats Pulpit had to say:
So far, the Patriots have used Michel primarily as an early-down back with little usage in the passing game (despite him showing some promise in this area at Georgia). He has played in both zone and man-blocking schemes, and has found success both on off-tackle or bruising up the middle.
He’s not the most elusive runner, but he has a downhill mentality and knows how to read and follow his blocks.
He also has shown some good ball security, fumbling only three times in 649 career touches.
The main problems are his lack of versatility – or the Patriots’ lack of trust in him to play a more versatile role – and his injury issues. He’s currently in his fourth training camp, but it is the first he has not opened on PUP. When healthy and playing behind a stable offensive line, however, he can be a good back. Working as a 1B behind Damien Harris last year, he averaged a solid 5.7 yards per carry.
I’d also say he’s not the best player when it comes to making something out of nothing. If he has a good O-line he can be good, if not he will be inconsistent.
Benny Snell, Steelers
Rosenthal sees Snell, a fourth round pick out of Kentucky in 2019, as another player who has seen his stock slip dramatically over the last six months. The Steelers drafted Najee Harris to be the number one running back and they’ve been pleasantly surprised with the play of free agent Kalen Ballage. Anthony McFarland, a fourth round pick in 2020, appears to be the number two option.
Snell had 18 carries for 28 yards with zero touchdowns (but nine first downs) on third down last season. He scored four goal line touchdowns, but he hasn’t proven capable of being a receiver out of the backfield at any point in his football career.
Rashaad Penny, Seahawks
The hiring of former Rams offensive assistant Shane Waldron as the new offensive coordinator in Seattle made it seem like Penny was going to become “Darrell Henderson North” for the Seahawks this season. But for the third time in the last three years, Penny is missing time due to injury and Waldron seems to have other options at his disposal with Alex Collins and 2020 fourth round pick DeeJay Dallas as training camp/preseason standouts behind incumbent starter Chris Carson.
Seattle may stubbornly hold onto their 2018 first round pick — Penny went four picks ahead of Michel, who went four picks ahead of Nick Chubb, who went three picks ahead of Ronald Jones — as they did with C.J. Prosise for four years. But they might not be able to afford a roster spot for an oft-injured back with only 161 rushing attempts in three years.
Penny wouldn’t necessarily put McVay at ease with his backs situation, but he averaged 6.0 yards per carry on first-and-10 in 2019 and might be able to spell Henderson in certain situations.
Which of these five — or someone else — would interest you the most?