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Is Cam Akers the right player to lead the Rams backfield?

NFL: Super Bowl LVI-Los Angeles Rams at Cincinnati Bengals Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The Los Angeles Rams losing to the Buffalo Bills in Week 1 in the fashion that they did was quite surprising. However, how they lost might not have even been the most surprising thing about what took place in the home opener. The most surprising thing from Week 1 was the fact that starting running back Cam Akers only got three carries in the loss.

Akers finished with three carries for zero yards while Darrell Henderson led the way with 13 rushing attempts. After tearing his achilles during the 2021 training camp, many have wondered if Akers will ever be able to return to the player that fans saw take over late in his rookie season.

During that six game stretch as the main ball-carrier in the Rams backfield, he accumulated 132 carries for 561 yards, averaging 4.25 yards per carry. This included a historic 131-yard performance in the playoff win against the Seattle Seahawks.

In that game, Akers became the first Rams rookie to rush for 100 yards in a playoff game. His 176 total yards from scrimmage also ranked as the third-highest total for a rookie in playoff history.

There was little reason not to be excited about what the future held for Akers. Then, the achilles injury happened.

Akers made a miraculous recovery and returned for the Rams’ Super Bowl run. However, he hasn’t looked like the same running back that simply took over games late in 2020. In his first game back in Week 18 against the San Francisco 49ers, Akers had five carries for three yards.

Against an Arizona Cardinals defense ranked 23rd against the run in EPA per play after Week 10, Akers had 17 carries for just 55 yards and an average of 3.2 yards per carry. In that same game, Sony Michel outperformed Akers as he averaged 4.5 yards per carry on 13 attempts for 58 yards.

The NFC Wild Card game against the Cardinals is just one of two times since returning from injury that Akers has averaged more than two yards per carry. The other occasion was in the NFC Championship game against the San Francisco 49ers in which Akers had 13 carries for 48 yards.

In the other two games, Akers didn’t look impressive either. He fumbled twice and averaged just two yards per carry on 24 attempts against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Against another below average run defense in the Cincinnati Bengals, the Rams running back averaged just 1.6 yards per carry.

During his five games in action at the end of last season, Akers’ -.95 rush yards over expected ranked 60th out of 62 eligible running backs. Only Carlos Hyde and Darrell Williams were worse. Akers’ -.45 EPA per rush also ranked dead last.

It’s worth noting that in the the previous six games before Akers took over during the postseason, Michel was one of the most productive running backs in the NFL. He led the league in rushing during the month of December and from Weeks 13-18, he had 129 carries for 540 yards, averaging 4.19 yards per carry.

The Rams offensive line was also one of the best in the league last season in run-blocking. Football Outsiders has a metric called adjusted line yards which takes all running back carries and assigns responsibility to the offensive line. The Rams’ 4.63 adjusted line yards was the sixth best in the NFL. Pro Football Focus also graded the Rams offense line as the 10th best run-blocking unit.

Akers’ ineffectiveness in the run game goes back farther than just his three carry performance against the Bills. 75 carries going back to last season isn’t a large sample size, but it’s not a small one either.

During that time, Akers has struggled to find room in the run game, had ball security issues, and hasn’t take a step forward in pass protection. As a rookie he ranked 48th among running backs in pass protection according to Pro Football Focus. Last season was a small sample size, but throughout the postseason, Akers ranked 15th out of 21 running backs.

Until Akers can be trusted on a three-down basis, especially in pass protection, his reps are going to be limited. If Akers is only in on running downs, the offense becomes too predictable. With Henderson, even if he isn’t as effective running ball, he at least provides a threat and can pass protect, therefore keeping the defense off balance.

Akers’ comeback from his torn achilles last season was incredibly impressive and that should not be understated. To come back from that in the same season was something that had never been before and speaks to just how great of athlete Akers is.

Because of that, it’s fair to give that context to last season’s numbers and the 75 carry sample size. Still, the history for running backs coming back from that sort of injury isn’t good.

One study in 2017 showed that across all positions, running backs saw the biggest decrease in production with a 78% decrease over three years post-injury in both power ratings and approximate value.

The most recent example, Marlon Mack, tore his achilles at the beginning of 2020 after rushing for 1999 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2018 and 2019 combined. Mack rushed for 101 yards last season, averaging 3.6 yards per carry which was the worst of his career. He is currently on the 49ers practice squad.

It’s unfair to judge Akers based on his performance in Week 1. Last week against the Bills, the Rams offensive line ranked 32nd in adjusted line yards and 30th in stuffed percentage according to Football Outsiders. You could have put Barry Sanders behind that offensive line and he likely would have struggled.

However, this week will be a big one for both the offensive line and Akers. The Falcons defense ranked 32nd in DVOA against the run in Week 1. If the Rams and Akers can’t find room in the run game on Sunday, it might be time to officially get concerned.

Outside of the six-game stretch to end 2020, Akers’ career yards per carry is just 3.68. The NFL average last season was 4.3 and Michel averaged 4.1 yards per carry in 2021 with the Rams.

Still, that six game stretch showed the potential of what Akers is capable of from a performance standpoint. He has the ability to be a workhorse and take over games, much like he did on the road in the playoffs against the Seahawks.

That six games is worth holding onto, but Akers needs to show some consistency going forward if he wants to be the primary ball-carrier in the Rams backfield.