There’s no telling what Sean McVay and the Los Angeles Rams’ plan will be at running back Sunday against a tough Pittsburgh Steelers defense. After losing starter Kyren Williams and primary backup Ronnie Rivers to what seem like multi-week injuries in their last game against the Arizona Cardinals where the running attached played a key role in the victory, LA must pivot to “Plan C” and go back to the drawing board for Week 7.
Rookie sixth-round draft pick Zach Evans—someone who the Rams traded up for the opportunity to select—was only other running back on the active roster as of last Sunday. Veteran and former Denver Broncos RB Royce Freeman has been on the practice squad since the start of the regular season. Players can be activated for game day off the practice squad up to four times in an individual season, and Freeman has already been called up three times. He did not receive any carries in the previous games he was activated for.
Los Angeles signed former member of the Miami Dolphins Miles Gaskin off the practice squad of the Minnesota Vikings. He’s a dual-threat running back that should provide a steady, experienced presence.
The Rams also reunited with Darrell Henderson who they selected in the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft but cut before the conclusion of last season. Henderson was managed through a number of injuries during his tenure in LA and always seemed to be on a pitch count. He should be plenty rested after sitting out the first six weeks of the NFL season, though it’s fair to wonder whether he’s truly in game shape.
Good catching up with Darrell Henderson, who seemed delighted by all the young energy in locker room. He told me he doesn’t know how his role will shake out Sunday, but this week was a lot of “game conditioning” (he has not been on a team) and reviving muscle memory. “Whenever— Jourdan Rodrigue (@JourdanRodrigue) October 20, 2023
So what has changed at the running back position this week for the Rams? Turns out they’ve basically overhauled their entire depth chat.
Blaine Grisak: Who will carry RB load without Kyren Williams?
Why Zach Evans should start versus Steelers
While the Rams—at least through the first six games—have defied reasonable expectations for them entering the season, 2023 was always intended as a rebuilding or setup year for the franchise. There are a number of young players learning on the fly on defense, such as Byron Young, Kobie Turner, Derion Kendrick, Cobie Durant, Russ Yeast, etc. While the offense is more veteran, players like Steve Avila and Puka Nauca are gaining valuable experience with each game and each rep.
It’s time to add Zach Evans to that list.
Rams RB Zach Evans was a problem at Ole Miss— SleeperNFL (@SleeperNFL) October 18, 2023
Even if Evans isn’t as good as Henderson, Freeman, or Gaskin today, the experience he gains being on the field could benefit the Rams late into this season and in future years. LA isn’t contending for a Super Bowl in 2023, and it’s worth taking lumps now to put players in a better position to succeed down the line.
Evans is probably considered a more talented player than Williams—he was at one point considered a borderline first-round prospect before off-field concerns made him available late into the sixth. While it may not be realistic for Evans to dethrone Williams as the starter this season or next, Williams’ extensive workload and recent injury proves the importance of having two premier running backs. A one-two punch with Williams and Evans behind LA’s revamped offensive line could prove to be a potent combination in time for a run at the post-season.
It’s worth mentioning that Evans has mostly been practicing with the scout team, whose purposes is to provide quality looks for the defense and prepare them for game action. Still, Evans has impressed coaches with his running ability in recent weeks and received four carries against the Cardinals with Rivers out of the game. Working primarily on the scout team limits Evans’ opportunities to learn the Rams’ playbook, but he’s still making progress as he adapts to the professional level. Here’s an excerpt from Jourdan Rodrigue’s recent update on LA’s running back situation over at The Athletic:
“Zach has been working his butt off out there, giving the defense a great look on the scout team. He’s been recognized by Sean (McVay) in a couple meetings of just the way the guy has been running,” veteran right tackle Rob Havenstein said. “He even said it before (Sunday), ‘When your opportunity comes, you’re going to be ready to go just by the way you’ve been working.’”
It’s important to remember that playing only on scout team for the first several weeks of the season, as Evans has, means that he has not gotten legitimate reps in the Rams’ own offense — because he is charged with simulating other running backs in opponents’ run game, to give looks the Rams’ defense can practice against. This week will represent Evans’ first actual week in the offense.
“It’s very different in terms of looking at a card (on scout team), (or) running our offense where Matthew’s communication in the huddle and all of the different things that he can do (are happening),” McVay said. “It’ll be a good challenge, but I’m confident that he’ll handle it well.”
The easy decision is to revert to a comfortable answer and start either Freeman or Henderson against Pittsburgh, but being diligent to prepare Evans and allowing him opportunities to show what he’s capable of could prove beneficial in the long run. The Rams should start Zach Evans on Sunday afternoon against the Steelers.