Sean McVay must have felt pretty confident that he had the right pieces in place at running back last May after the Rams had drafted Darrell Henderson, Cam Akers, and Jake Funk in each of the previous three years. Los Angeles also employed popular undrafted free agent options with Xavier Jones and Raymond Calais expected in camp.
And yet, none of those five players led the 2021 LA Rams in rushing yards.
The Rams lost Akers before training camp, then Calais and Jones shortly thereafter. Funk was healthy enough to appear in 10 games and he finished with fewer rushing attempts and yards than midseason pickup Buddy Howell. Henderson made 12 appearances and 10 starts, finishing second on the team in rushing yards behind Sony Michel.
By the Super Bowl, the starting running back role had gone back to Cam Akers, proving you can never predict whether or not you’ve got enough depth at running back. The Rams exhausted their “depth” so quickly that by the next January, they were back to where they started.
What will McVay and Les Snead be comfortable with at running back when they go into training camp this time around?
The Rams traded a fifth and sixth round pick to the New England Patriots for Sony Michel in August, then he finished the season with 208 carries for 845 yards and four touchdowns. Michel saw his role dramatically reduced in the postseason after the return of Akers, finishing with 26 carries for 80 yards and no touchdowns.
But only 13 carries for 22 yards in L.A.’s final three playoff games. He caught three passes but lost eight yards on those plays.
If the Rams hadn’t been a playoff team, Sony Michel might be entering free agency on a high note. He started the final six games and for the most part played pretty well. Though his team won the Super Bowl, Michel’s most action was a 10-carry, 16-yard performance in the NFC Championship game against the 49ers, the same team that held him to 43 yards on 21 carries in the season finale.
NBC ranked Michel as the sixth-best free agent running back of the year:
Michel made only seven starts with the Rams as he backed up Darrell Henderson for most of the campaign. Still, the former Patriots running back managed to put up some of the best numbers of his career. Michel probably won’t take over as a bell-cow back wherever he lands in 2022, but he proved to be a solid complementary piece when given the opportunity in L.A.
Contract projection: 2 years, $10 million
On one hand, Michel makes little sense for the Rams. McVay probably wants to go back to the plan that uses Akers and Henderson in the backfield, leaving no role for Michel. On the other hand, re-read the introduction to this article.
Michel played in all 21 games for the Rams, a remarkable accomplishment for any running back and he’s been considerably more available in his career than Henderson.
If Justin Leger’s prediction above is correct, a two-year, $10 million contract, would that be worth it to McVay to have a more dependable third option?
Yet if Snead lets Michel sign for that elsewhere, L.A. could potentially recoup one of the day three draft picks they traded by receiving a 2023 sixth or seventh round compensatory selection. That is unless the Rams sign a free agent running back of their own that offsets the loss.
What options could Snead be looking at?
I think it is more important that L.A. be looking at running backs who could fill in for Darrell Henderson than they should necessarily be looking for “starting” running backs to replace Cam Akers. And despite his fumbling issue in the playoffs and college, I still think that McVay views Akers as the team’s starting running back. Akers wasn’t spectacular in the postseason by any means—he was also returning after not playing football for a year.
Akers was outstanding at the end of his rookie season and could still become an all-around back like fellow Florida State alum Dalvin Cook.
I’d instead focus on what Henderson brings to the offense and what type of player could fill his role if he gets injured again, as well as if he leaves in free agency in 2023.
Rashaad Penny, Seahawks
Seattle is probably doing whatever it can to keep Penny from testing free agency, which would not have sounded like a logical statement even three months ago. If the Seahawks fail to reach an agreement with Penny prior to free agency, he might find a surprisingly robust market ready to overpay for what he did in December and January.
The oft-injured former first round pick (right ahead of Michel) had 161 career carries prior to 2021.
He then got a start on December 12th against the Texans and rushed for 137 yards. Then after the Rams held him to 11 carries for 39 yards in Week 15, Penny did this: 135 rushing yards, 170 rushing yards, and 190 rushing yards.
Over the final five games, Rashaad Penny had 92 carries for 671 yards with six touchdowns, averaging 7.3 yards per carry.
Rashaad Penny’s final 5 games of the season:— Riley Michel (@rileymichel) January 10, 2022
671 yards (134.2 per game)
6 TDs pic.twitter.com/nj7Imww4D0
It’s surprising because those numbers are unbelievable, but less surprising given that this was the type of player many expected him to be when he was coming out of San Diego State in 2018. He has the same build and speed as Ezekiel Elliott and flashed this kind of talent when he wasn’t hurt in his first two seasons.
Penny also has one year under his belt now of playing for Shane Waldron, Seattle’s OC and a former coordinator with the Rams.
The Rams signing Penny would be a shocker, but when does Snead not do something that we failed to see coming?
For a much cheaper price, the Rams could wait to see if the Seahawks release Chris Carson. Another player with a long injury history, Carson has experience as a three-down back and could come at a much cheaper price tag than Penny or many of this year’s options. Carson rushed for over 1,100 yards in 2018 and 2019, but has only played in 16 games over the last two years.
Cordarrelle Patterson, Falcons
I’ve noticed a lot of people in the Turf Show Times comments section talking about Patterson recently. If you’re one of those people, please do feel free to keep sharing those thoughts below.
The former first round receiver and returner found himself in a new role in Arthur Smith’s Atlanta offense last season: running back.
Patterson entered 2021 with 167 career rushing attempts over eight seasons. He finished 2021 with 153 carries for 618 yards and six touchdowns, also catching 52 passes for 548 yards and another five touchdowns. That’s 5.7 yards per touchdown and 11 touchdowns in 16 games.
The breakout could be seen as early as Falcons training camp, when coaches and teammates were raving about the season he was about to have.
Typically that’s the type of news fluff you see every year and can often be dismissed, but Patterson’s was the real deal.
If he wants his best chance to win a Super Bowl next season, could McVay convince Patterson to come play in the Rams offense with Matthew Stafford and Cooper Kupp? Would he want to? There’s no L.A. discount that I know of though, so adding Patterson would have to come at the cost of saying goodbye to either Odell Beckham Jr or Robert Woods though.
Could he be that helpful to the Rams next season?
What if Ravens release Gus Edwards?
You can find lists of all the pending free agent running backs and draw your own conclusions. If you do, please a drop a list of your preferred running backs in the comments section so I know which names to focus on better in the future. I’m reading what you’re putting down, so help guide me in the right direction.
But what about maybe some potential cap casualties, like Chris Carson?
One option may be Gus Edwards. As a member of the Baltimore Ravens, Edwards has rushed for almost exactly 700 yards in each of his three healthy seasons from 2018-2020. That’s really the primary part of his game and he’s a complementary part of a backfield that must include a start with more versatility, like Akers.
He’s averaged over 5.0 yards per carry in every season but he tore his ACL and missed all of 2021. Baltimore had a gluttony of issues at the position, also losing J.K. Dobbins and Justice Hill, eventually signing Devonta Freeman and Latavius Murray.
The Ravens might have been happy enough with one of the veteran options to consider releasing Edwards for a savings of $4.3 million in 2022.
Should the Rams call him up if that happens? It depends on the price and the competition, of course, but Edwards is a 27-year-old experienced running back with a lot of success as a runner under his belt. That’s also maybe why the Ravens won’t release him.
In any case, the actual free agent running back market will look differently than it does right now. As we saw with the 2021 Rams and Ravens, a team’s own backfield can change dramatically week to week.