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Darrell Henderson has a lot left to prove before he’s the Rams full-time running back

And why it could be Sony Michel’s year

NFL: Los Angeles Rams Training Camp John McCoy-USA TODAY Sports

Let me open by saying that I always root for players to be great and that I hope Darrell Henderson is great for the entire 2021 season. If I say that I have concerns about a player, then know that underneath that worry is a thick layer of me wanting to be proven wrong. I will happily sacrifice my accuracy and ego for quality play by a football player ... because I love football players.

And Henderson is a football player who has proven to be explosive and effective in certain situations.

However, Darrell Henderson’s 2020 season should be the poster of why using PFF grades and DVOA ratings to explain why a player is “better” or “worse” than another player is a fool’s argument.

This is in contrast to the way that I’ve seen people using Henderson’s 2020 “numbers” this offseason as a way to suggest that he not only out-performed Cam Akers, but that LA’s third-year back was one of the most valuable in the entire league. This argument requires you also ignore the fact that Henderson was benched for Akers in late November, early December.

It also requires you to either ignore what you saw during Rams games in 2020 or completely skip out on watching altogether. From everything that my eyes witnessed last year and in the playoffs, Akers was inarguably the better player.

Malcolm Brown might have been too.

The fool’s argument asks you to believe that ProFootballFocus’s graders know more about Darrell Henderson and Cam Akers than Sean McVay and his coaching staff does. To side with a number over a human or your own eyes.

The fact that so many have sided with the number is endlessly fascinating to me. We often refer to analytics as “advanced stats,” but what could be so advanced about needing to boil down the entire season into a single number? How are we learning more by asking for less?

I want to see Henderson thrive with his opportunity in 2021 because he’s never had a better chance at the NFL level to become a star player than what’s in front of him right now. There’s no Todd Gurley, no Akers, and no better support that a running back could ask for than a monumental upgrade at quarterback.

But these are a few reasons why I worry that Sony Michel was a necessary addition who stands great odds of becoming LA’s starting running back in short order.

Darrell Henderson misses games

As a college running back at Memphis, Henderson was reliable and dependable, playing in 38 games over three seasons and carrying the football 431 times for 3,545 yards with 36 touchdowns. Most of that came during a junior campaign in which Henderson had 214 carries for 1,909 yards and 22 touchdowns.

However, the workload at the NFL level has taken a toll on Henderson and a string of minor injuries has already landed him on injured reserve in both campaigns. This despite the fact that Henderson only has 177 career carries over two seasons.

In fact, when you add it all up, Henderson has only carried the ball 608 times over the last five years, an average of 121 attempts per year. Compare that to a quarterback: Kyler Murray had 133 attempts last season. J.K. Dobbins had 134 attempts as the third-most popular ball-carrier in Baltimore.

Last season, another D.H., Derrick Henry, carried the ball 378 times in the regular season and another 18 times in the playoffs.

What kind of expectations can we really have for Darrell Henderson to run the ball more than 200 times during the 2021 season? A 17-game season, by the way.

We know that running backs get hit the most often and therefore those impacts lead to the most injuries, most games missed, and shortest careers for those players at the position. Dobbins’ 2021 season, like Akers weeks before him, ended before it started.

Henderson has suffered injuries in each of the last two training camps, and he has ended both 2019 and 2020 on LA’s injured reserve. Though his thumb injury last month was not a significant one, it does serve as a reminder that he’s always just one moment away from being out of action, and that has led to six games missed in his short career, including playoffs.

Is DVOA really predictive of anything?

No, and it never intends to be. DVOA is a story of the past, not a telling of the future.

Last season, Darrell Henderson ranked fourth in the NFL in DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average; essentially, it is FootballOutsiders’ way of telling you what they think is the value of a player as compared to his peers in those same situations, i.e., down/distance/score/field position, etc.), coming in behind Dobbins, Nick Chubb, and Alvin Kamara.

You’re probably thinking, “But those are good players!” Yes, Chubb and Kamara are proven backs, it’s not surprising to see them there.

They’re also players who work, like Dobbins, in tandem with at least one other guy. For Chubb, he splits his time with Kareem Hunt, so Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski knows that he can always choose one or the other back depending on situation. For Kamara, he’s always been the featured complement to a more traditional between-the-tackles back.

It increases the likelihood that those players will be successful in their opportunities, as opposed to a running back who is being asked to do too much; to take part in the plays that are sure to harm his overall value.

Example: When Cam Akers had to start Week 17 with John Wolford as the QB instead of Jared Goff, it meant having to play in a spread offense for the first time and it led to him having the worst game of his rookie season. With Goff in the playoffs, Akers was thriving again.

Now imagine if you could just erase that game from Akers’ resume, his DVOA would go up.

Imagine if Henderson had to start that game. His DVOA might go down.

These players are being punished for doing more, rather than being rewarded for doing more and dinged for not having a full arsenal of abilities.

We know that Derrick Henry is the best running back in the NFL (or at least, you should know that) but he only ranks 11th in DVOA. Why? Because Henry isn’t just in there for the good plays. He’s also in there for the difficult plays, the three-yard losses, the same shit that Barry Sanders had to deal with as a three-down back.

In 1995, Sanders rushed for 1,500 yards and 11 TDs but ranked 12th in DVOA. He came in a hair ahead of (/squints eyes so unbelievably hard that my eyelids kiss the back of my skull) Aaron Hayden, a rookie for the San Diego Chargers who had 470 yards on 128 carries.

DVOA can be great, but only if you know what it means. To use it as a sign of importance or value is to use it incorrectly.

Henderson’s DVOA is higher than most in part because his abilities were less than what McVay would have hoped for.

Henderson has only proven to have limited value

Building off of what we’ve learned about DVOA, we know that Henderson likely got a huge boost because he was only used in certain situations once Sean McVay could confidently say that Henderson was struggling at other moments and had to be pulled from the game at those times.

It’s not just that Henderson lost opportunities to Akers, a player we all know could be a future star back in the NFL, but he also ended up giving up ground to Malcolm Brown.

When Akers was injured in Week 2, Henderson took on a lead back role, with Brown as his main support. The overall stats seem potentially compelling — 4.8 YPC, a pace of nearly 1,400 total yards with 11 total touchdowns — but we can also pick up some other context clues when we go deeper than just some numbers.

Like the fact that Henderson still only averaged 14 runs per game. That the Rams were not gaining a lot of total yards on the ground. That his number of targets in the receiving game were limited and likely always will be as compared to the great franchise backs that came before him.

But most importantly, the fact that Malcolm Brown had more total snaps than Henderson did in that same period of time, averaging 4.1 yards per carry.

I’m not saying Brown is a starting running back either. I’m saying that in McVay’s eyes, there was more that Brown could do for LA than what Henderson could do, generally speaking. Then in a Week 8 loss to the Miami Dolphins, Henderson played in 18 snaps before leaving with a thigh injury, giving Brown a chance to play in 57 snaps.

Henderson remained the starter for a while, but in title only, until Akers took over in Week 12. When Akers went out, Henderson started a Week 16 loss to the Seattle Seahawks, carrying the ball 12 times for 62 yards on 31 snaps. Then he went on IR and missed the final three Rams game of last year.

When I say that Henderson has limited value, it’s not just in terms of losing ground to Malcolm Brown and Cam Akers because of inconsistent play or injuries, but also due to the types of plays that McVay thinks he can execute. Can Henderson prove a decoy in the passing game, or do opposing defenses know that when he’s on the field, it’s a run play? Can Henderson pass block adequately? Can Henderson run in between the tackles?

According to the Sports Info Solutions Datahub, Henderson averaged 5.6 yards per play on “Off Tackle” runs, which comes as no surprise to those of us who remember watching the games. If Henderson was stretching out to the right side, it seemed like that was an area of success for him as a running back.

Only Dobbins and Chubb had a higher average there (minimum 100 total carries).

But you may have also noticed that Henderson averaged 3.6 YPC on inside runs, which tied Latavius Murray for 33rd among qualified players.

This was also a team problem: Brown averaged 2.8 YPC on inside runs, Akers averaged 2.5 YPC.

On “Outside” runs, Henderson averaged 2.7 YPC, and only two qualified players did worse: Adrian Peterson and Gio Bernard, both of whom had far fewer attempts in that area.

Henderson’s stats here also fall behind on Yards After Contact (2.1, which ranks outside the top-35) and Broken Tackles (only seven players had fewer Broken/Missed tackles per attempt than Henderson in 2020).

Darrell Henderson or Sony Michel?

May I interest you in some Jake Funk?

The reality is that both Henderson and Michel have underperformed their draft status. Henderson was drafted in the third round in 2019 as an insurance policy to Todd Gurley, not just if he got hurt in a game, but if his knee would never really allow him to be an NFL back again. We saw that exact situation play out in 2020, but whether it was during Henderson’s rookie season as a complement who was absent from games entirely too often, or as a lead back who eventually gave way to the next “insurance policy,” he’s never been able to hang onto his opportunities.

Michel helped the New England Patriots win a Super Bowl during his rookie season, but this didn’t prevent him from being one of the least valuable starting running backs of 2019, or from being traded to the Rams in 2021 after he wound up fifth on New England’s depth chart.

Realistically, I expect McVay to split carries between Henderson and Michel as soon as he possibly can, because neither has given us GOOD reasons yet to expect them to become the type of “three-down backs” that exist in our minds when we’re planning a fantasy football draft or predicting Pro Bowlers in January. And if neither of them work out, Jake Funk provides the type of projection at the position that will give fans reason for optimism, even if his past with two torn ACLs and a limited five-year career at Maryland means that you can never feel too confident with any one running back.

That’s why McVay will probably use all three at some point in a game and at some point in the season.

And I’ll be rooting for all of them.