A small fact lost in the reverie of the Los Angeles Rams Super Bowl victory is that they finished the 2021 season in the bottom 10 of NFL running attacks. So whose to blame? And really, does blame even need to placed?
A popular narrative is that the Rams offensive line doesn’t measure up. Pro Football Focus rated them 7th overall in the league, ESPN Analytics had them 12th in run block win rate and 1st in pass block win rate and finally, Football Outsiders ranked the big uglies 6th overall in adjusted line yards, but had them in 29th in power blocking situations (Converting 3rd or 4th down and less than 2 yards).
Certainly, injuries and the resulting positional continuity led the Rams to rely on Matthew Stafford’s arm and Sean McVay’s passing schemes. Losing Cam Akers for the regular season was the big hit, but all the Rams running backs save Sony Michel were nicked up. Michel did a fine job and is a solid NFL back, but not a true fit for LA’s outside zone run game and has not been signed for 2022.
Akers, Darrell Henderson, Jake Funk, Raymond Calais, Xavier Jones, and Javian Hawkins are the Rams running backs currently under contract. After two years, Akers has shown he has the skillset to be RB1, but is coming off a major injury and his missing almost 50 percent of games deserves scrutiny. Henderson is a nice complimentary back that can run routes downfield and had minor injury problems, as well. Deeper down the roster, Funk, Calais, and Jones all missed significant game time last season and Hawkins is an undrafted speedster who was a game breaker in college. Not many pro snaps among these four.
Under Sean McVay, LA has generally kept four RB’s on the roster. After Akers and Henderson, the opportunity to win a role is wide open and there are many backfield prospects the Rams could target in the later rounds. Here are four late round possibilities that fit the LA Rams needs, they have experience running behind wide zone run blocking, they can pass block, and show good hands when catching the football.
Mateo Durant - Duke 5’ 11” 196 lbs @ Pro Day
Good running back on a bad Duke team that went 5-18 in his final two years. All-ACC first team selection in 2021, ran for 1317 yards at a 4.9 yard clip and corralled 27 passes for another 256 yards. Durant was a high school basketball star and medal winning track sprinter in the 100 and 200 meter dashes. Spent his freshman year on coverage unit special teams.
At the Duke Pro Day, Durant showed great speed with a 4.38 forty, but backed it up with a pedestrian 4.43 shuttle and 7.40 3cone. In the explosion drills, he had a 35” vertical and 10’ 7” broad jump. He measured 31 3/8” arms and 77 1/2” wingspan. The shuttle and 3cone hint that he is more of a linear athlete than an agile, lateral mover.
Lanky running back in the Raheem Mostert mold who has good burst, stellar long speed and good contact balance. Durant shows good vision, can stop and restart well, has good arsenal of moves, and navigates well in traffic. Where he really stands out is recognizing an open lane, making one cut and bursting through. He is always heading vertically and doesn’t have the “fast guy” habit of constantly trying to break it outside. Finishes off runs falling forward, but not a power back. At the goal line, he is more apt to sky over the line than pound through it.
Although he ran mostly swings, screens, and check downs, he shows good, soft hands as a receiver. He catches the ball away from his body and transitions from catch to run well. There are a couple of film clips where he runs routes, down the field. I like his effort as a blocker when he gets his hands up to punch. He is not afraid to mix it up. Another publication said that he only dives at incoming rusher’s feet. I didn’t see this, maybe it’s on tape of past seasons, I mainly looked at 2021.
Mateo Durant is high-motor, fast back with extensive outside zone success. He can catch, block, and has a history playing special teams. On tape, he stands out for breaking off big chunk runs and making the best of having a mediocre offensive line. As far as competition, the ACC has lost some of its luster as a power conference, but they still play good football. He is totally under the radar and could easily be stashed on the practice squad to pack on some muscle and build up his lower body strength.
Ty Chandler - North Carolina 5’ 11” 203 @ NFL Combine
Graduate transfer to North Carolina after spending four years at Tennessee. As a Tar heel, he finally got the featured back role after being part of a rotation for the Vols and responded with 1092 yards averaging 6.0 yards per carry. He also chipped in 15 receptions for 216 yards.
Chandler snagged a NFL Combine invite and showed he’s another linear, downhill type athlete. He clocked a speedy 4.38 forty and then added a 4.41 shuttle and 7.40 3cone. He bench pressed 15 reps, broad jumped 10’ 1” and had a 31” vertical. His arms are 32 1/8” and his wingspan covered 75 3/8”.
Another good zone back with good burst (1.46 ten yard split on forty yard dash), but not a one cut and go runner, Chandler is patient, follows blockers very well, and has a nice combination of vision and light feet. He matches this vision, the the ability to recognize defenders angles, and low pad level to create stellar contact balance and bounce off of would-be tacklers. He stacks small deft moves rather than cutting at speed. Does not shy away from contact when the situation calls for it.
Not used much as receiver at North Carolina, most likely because QB Sam Howell liked to sling it down field. There is some nice tape of him running wheel routes down the sideline and working the hash marks. He catches the ball with his hands away from his body. In older Tennessee tape, he lined up in the slot and ran routes down the field.
One of his best traits is blocking and whether it’s squaring up in the pocket or leading another runner down field, Chandler is willing, aggressive, and chippy. He has also returned 38 kickoffs over his career for 850 yards, a 22.4 average.
Ty Chandler offers the Rams an instinctual running back with three down potential. He’s had success running behind both inside and outside blocking schemes and has the traits to provide value as a receiver. He may also contribute as a kickoff returner. He has a stellar history of ball security, according to The 33rd Team, Chandler had only one fumble in 2021 and according to Pro Football Network, has only four fumbles over 600+ touches in his college career.
Ty Chandler transferred to @UNCFootball and filled the void M.Carter/J.Williams left very well.— Eric Galko (@EricGalko) February 22, 2022
He’s an explosive one cut runner, but he showed a lot agility/twitch, especially in space, that pushed him from a 1st/2nd down RB to a complete RB prospect.
Another UNC RB draft pick pic.twitter.com/eeYACn0jzc
Julius Chestnut - Sacred Heart 5’ 11” 224 lbs. @ Hula Bowl 4.47/n/a/7.06 22reps/34.5”/9’ 5” 31” 72 3/4”
FCS All-American first teamer on 2020-21 and third teamer in 2019. Over his 32 games at Sacred Heart, he ran for 3472 yards, at almost 6.0 yards per carry, and 26 touchdowns. Chestnut also had 28 catches for 428 yards and five more TD’s. He only played in five games during the 2021 slate after spraining his knee in the season opener.
Built like a bruiser with thick bottom half, Chestnut also shows topnotch athleticism. In his Pro Day speed drills, he ran 4.47 in the forty and 7.06 in the 3cone. In the explosion drills, he had a 34.5” vertical, 9’ 5” broad, and pressed 22 reps on the bench. His arms measured at 31” and wingspan at 72 3/4”.
The first thing I look for when evaluating small school players is that they dominate. When watching Chestnut’s tape, it is easy to get lost in all the long, breakaway runs versus lesser competition. Looking closer, he shows all the traits of a natural runner. Vision, patience, burst, and following blocks at the line of scrimmage. He shows he can create space with good feet, quick jump cuts, and powerful stiff arm. In the open field, his moves are fluid, has good contact balance, and can go around or over defenders.
As a receiver, Chestnut did not produce prodigious numbers. On tape it looks to be more of a scheme thing than ability or potential. He shows good hands and catches away from his body, actually had a few one-handed grabs on bad throws. Same thing with blocking, not a lot of complete game film to mine, mostly highlights. In what there is, he looks physical and willing and I thinks this is in keeping with overall game demeanor. He is a thumper.
Because of Covid19 changes to college player eligibility, many are opting to take advantage and play the extra season/seasons offered to them. During this window, many players coming out are older. Chestnut will play his rookie season as a 21 year-old, and he’s not all beat to hell from overuse, he averaged a little over 125 touches per season at Sacred Heart.
Julius Chestnut would be a different kind of back for the Rams, one that gets behind his pads, and brings a power element to improve LA’s short yardage game. A professional caliber strength/conditioning program could create a monster. Running in the NFL is quite a jump from the Northeastern Conference and the learning curve will be steep, but as a late round developmental pick, Chestnut would be a low risk/ high reward selection.
Where do these prospects fit?
There are many good backs in this years draft and it all depends on which round the Rams decide to spend their capital. At the likely draft positions of these three prospects, they possess the traits to bring value into the LA scheme right away or be stashed for developing. Mateo Durant, Ty Chandler, and Julius Chestnut all have speed, power, and big play potential.