The Los Angeles Rams finally got the run game going against the Arizona Cardinals as Kyren Williams rushed for 158 yards and averaged 7.9 yards per carry. It only makes sense, of course, that Williams proceeded to get hurt along with Ronnie Rivers and is expected to miss at least the Week 7 matchup against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
While trading Cam Akers was a necessity, it’s times like these where you wish that it could have worked between the two sides. At the very least, Akers provided good depth and could be relied on to carry the load.
Now, the Rams may be relying on a running back by committee. As a sixth-round pick, rookie Zach Evans needed time to develop and now will be thrown into a situation where, even if he’s not ready, he’ll need to be. Royce Freeman has spent time on the Rams’ practice squad this season and has been elevated to the roster.
Behind them, the Rams brought back a familiar face in Darrell Henderson and also signed former Miami Dolphins running back, Myles Gaskin off of the Minnesota Vikings practice squad.
It’s hard to see head coach Sean McVay trusting any of those players to carry the workload in the run game in the same way that he did Williams. In a game against the Steelers in which it will be important to keep their pass rushers off balance, the Rams need to be able to find some semblance of a running game.
However, there are two big questions here. First, what exactly does that look like with the current players in the building? Most importantly, will McVay have confidence in those players to lean on the run game if needed?
So far this season, the Rams have gotten extremely lucky with the production that they’ve received from their rookie class. Steve Avila has been one of the best rookie offensive linemen this season. Byron Young and Puka Nacua are making cases for Offensive and Defensive Rookie of the Year. That doesn’t mention Kobie Turner or Ethan Evans who are producing as well.
The Rams have gotten the most snaps from rookie non-QBs this season.
While it would be great for Evans to hit the field running like other rookies have this season, it seems almost unfair to have those same expectations. Given that he was the fourth running back on the depth chart entering the season, it’s possible that the original plan was for Evans to take this season and develop. Now, Evans will be thrown into the fire and be put in a position that he may have not been quite ready for just yet.
The good news here is that Evans should be fine running the ball and is a perfect fit for the Rams’ gap scheme. In a pre-draft report, Derrik Klassen of Bleacher Report wrote,
“He is an aggressive downhill runner with the strength to consistently bounce off tacklers, move piles and fall forward for extra yardage...Evans has the rushing skills to slot into any system, though a downhill gap scheme may unlock his potential the most.”
Evans’ carries have been limited this season. Against the Cardinals he had four carries for just 10 yards and averaged 3.3 yards per carry on 23 attempts in the preseason. One of the primary concerns for the Rams rookie running back coming out of the draft was his ability in the passing game.
Said Klassen about Evans,
“Below-average hands as a pass-catcher. Looks uncomfortable locating the ball at times. Evans is also a middling pass-catcher at this stage. He has the movement skills to be effective in space, but he often looks uncomfortable tracking and bringing in the ball.”
The issue isn’t with Evans’ talent, but rather if he can avoid the typical rookie mistakes and allow McVay to trust him consistently. This is a player that the Rams really liked coming out of the draft and traded up in the sixth round to select him. Given that Evans is now the “next man up” on the depth chart, it would not be surprising to see him get a decent amount of work on early downs running the ball.
Evans has some deficiencies as a pass catcher and will have a long ways to go in pass protection. This is where someone like Royce Freeman or Darrell Henderson will come into play. Evans is a great fit for the Rams’ current run scheme and makes the most sense to get the early-down work and limited snaps on passing downs.
The Rams brought in Freeman in late-July and signed him to the practice squad at the beginning of the regular season. He doesn’t provide a lot of explosiveness as a runner. During the preseason, he averaged just 3.5 yards per carry on 13 attempts and has a career average of 3.7 yards per carry. Over the last two seasons with the Houston Texans, Freeman averaged 2.9 and 2.7 yards per attempt.
However, where Freeman will provide some value is in the passing game. In 2019, he had 43 receptions with the Denver Broncos. More importantly, this is a player that the Rams will be able to trust in pass protection. Last season, Freeman had an 80.3 pass-block grade according to PFF.
Teddy Bridegwater to KJ Hamler for a TD:— Shawn (@SyedSchemes) August 24, 2021
-DB over Hamler comes down to blitz
-37 expands out but is inside leverage
-Jeudy has a fade (stops CB from trapping Hamler on an out)
-Great job by Royce Freeman in pass pro to come across and deliver a good shot!
-Speed out for 6⃣ pic.twitter.com/cJTzO157cM
Freeman will likely be used in obvious passing situations as he brings more value in pass protection than a young player like Evans. He’ll potentially be used in short-yardage as well where he brings a size advantage at 5’11, 238-pounds.
It was a mild surprise when the Rams opted to bring in Henderson over a player like Leonard Fournette. While Henderson has experience in the building, a lot has changed since he was on the team last season. The Rams have changed running back coaches as well as offensive coordinators and their running scheme changed significantly.
When the Rams drafted Henderson back in 2019, he was seen as a fit because of his ability in outside zone. At the time, the Rams ran more outside zone than any other team in the NFL. Henderson has always been an outside zone, one cut running back.
Following the 2019 NFL Draft, Sosa Kremenjas, previously of TurfShow Times wrote,
“Henderson doesn’t create much behind the line of scrimmage. Great fit in a zone blocking scheme. When running outside zone (the Rams ran more outside zone than any other NFL team last year), he shows solid vision, presses the line, and when appropriate, he makes one cut and goes...Productive runner from shotgun. Tough and has good balance when absorbing hits. Good hands though he wasn’t used a ton as a receiver. Upright running style. Can drop his shoulder and get physical. Enough speed and burst to reach the edge when appropriate. Solid patience which allows holes to develop. Finishes runs with power delivering big blows to defenders.”
Currently, the Rams run game is based more around gap schemes which is completely different than when Henderson was in the building last season. While the offense is generally the same, those are still significant differences.
This isn’t to say that Henderson doesn’t have experience in gap or hasn’t been successful in it. Memphis ran plenty of gap when Henderson was in college. In 2018, Henderson had 110 “gap runs” to 99 zone according to Pro Football Focus.
“Henderson emerged from a Memphis offense centered on a diverse gap run scheme...The back is told where to go, minimizing the reliance on vision, processing of post-snap change, lateral agility and controlled footwork. Instead, the best gap running backs are those like Henderson, who displays comfort navigating tight spaces, sudden acceleration, an aggressive running style and outstanding contact balance that helps him defeat tacklers in the open field.”
Additionally, Henderson hasn’t garnered a lot of interest since being cut by the Rams. He signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars last November before being cut a month later. Henderson recently signed with the Arlington Renegades of the XFL. This isn’t the same player that the Rams drafted out of Memphis. Soft tissue injuries have affected his burst and he’s never had great change of direction.
At the very least, Henderson could provide some value in the passing game and in pass protection. Henderson had a 79.1 pass-blocking grade in 2021 which ranked inside the top-10 in the NFL.
It’s worth noting that Henderson is only on the team’s practice squad. However, it wouldn’t be surprising if he got elevated on game day. Given that he’s been out of the NFL for almost a year, Henderson likely won’t be thrown in as the team’s top running back right away and will provide familiar depth while Kyren Williams and Ronnie Rivers are injured.
It would be a mild surprise if Gaskin was used in any capacity. With the lack of depth at the running back position, this was likely just a depth signing. Gaskin is someone who had some experience in a similar passing offense in Minnesota under Kevin O’Connell and last season under Mike McDaniel in Miami.
Gaskin does bring a change of pace, but most of his strengths are in the passing game. He had 41 and 49 receptions in 2020 and 2021 with the Dolphins. He can also add a change of pace option in the running game if needed.
Again, Gaskin getting any work outside of passing downs and receiving work would be somewhat surprising.
It’s hard to know exactly what the Rams are going to do at the running back position. Between Evans, Freeman, Henderson, and Gaskin there is a lot of unknown and uncertainty. In all likelihood, this will be a running back by committee and running with the hot hand.
When all is said and done the breakdown will most likely be Evans with the work on early downs and getting the majority of the carries. Right now, he’s the player that’s spent the most time in the building and on the active roster this season.
However, as mentioned, Evans is still a work in progress on passing downs. This is where Freeman and Henderson come into play. Given that Henderson hasn’t been in the NFL since last season and just signed to the practice squad, Freeman may be the player that gets the most reps here initially. With that said, Henderson should get worked into the rotation, especially if he’s brought up to the active roster on game day.
The last player in this equation is Gaskin who will provide depth behind Henderson who has an injury history. He could also provide a change of pace option if some variety is needed in the run game.