Who will start and get the majority of carries for the L.A. Rams in Week 7? It is one of the bigger questions this week around the NFL is who will start at running back and get the majority of the carries for the Los Angeles Rams after the team placed two players, including Kyren Williams, on IR.
There is, of course, a fantasy football element as Kyren Williams was a top-5 fantasy running back this season. However, from an actual football standpoint, the Rams need to be able to lean on someone that they can trust. Zach Evans, Darrell Henderson, Royce Freeman, and Myles Gaskin all bring a different skillset.
Sean McVay hasn’t given a lot of hints on how all four running backs will be used. McVay was asked if he has a sense on how the running backs will be used, the Rams coach said “I have a sense. I do have a sense of that, yes.” When prodded on if he would share those details, McVay responded, “No, I will not. Not to be rude on that, it’s just that there’s no reason to share it.”
With all of that said, McVay has struggled to have a poker face in press conferences in the past. Has he given any hints this week on who could see the majority of the workload? Let’s dive into the quotes to find out.
Reason for Optimism:
Evans hasn’t gotten a lot of opportunities this season, but he’s clearly a player that the Rams liked in the draft. Even though it was day three, the team traded up an entire round to go get him. Still, he was just a sixth-round pick and given his usage this season, it’s obvious that the Rams wanted to develop him this season and get him comfortable in the offense.
So far this year, Evans has been running the scout team at running back. While this isn’t a bad thing, he’s also not getting consistent reps on the offense. Per The Athletic’s Jourdan Rodrigue, Rams right tackle Rob Havenstein said about Evans,
“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. 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.’”
That’s a good endorsement from one of the Rams’ leaders on offense. At the same time, there is a difference in running scout team and running through actual walkthrough drills. Offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur spoke about Evans on Wednesday. LaFleur said,
“Zach brings it every single day. I’ve been thoroughly impressed with what he does every day for that show team. It never stops. He continues to get better.”
The Rams rookie class has really stepped up to the plate this season and that sets a pretty high bar for Evans which may or may not be fair. Some players develop at different speeds than others and Evans may just take some time. There were a lot of positive things said about Evans, but nothing that said, ‘this is a guy we trust to carry the ball 15+ times and hold up in pass protection.’
Reason for Concern:
On Monday, McVay was asked straight up if Zach Evans was set to start on Sunday. He was technically the next man up on the depth chart with Freeman getting elevated from the practice squad and the team signing Darrell Henderson and Myles Gaskin. The Rams head coach responded to that by saying,
“I wouldn’t say that. We’ve got the week to be able to evaluate and I would say all four of those guys are possibilities and we’re truly navigating through that. But I was pleased with what Zach did towards the latter part of the game...I was pleased with his opportunities that he got the other day. It’s in a different scenario when you’re just kind of really just closing out the game and it’s known run situations but I’m looking forward to seeing how he handles this week because it is different... it’ll be a good challenge, but I’m confident that he’ll handle it well.”
This week was seemingly an open competition as McVay looked for a running back that he can trust throughout the game. That includes running the ball and finding the correct hole as well as in pass protection. While you can use a two-back system, both backs need to be trusted to some extent in both passing and running situations as to not tip-off the defense. This was a big problem with Cam Akers and why he faced 8-man boxes so frequently.
McVay didn’t ooze a lot of confidence in Evans when asked about what he’s seen from the running backs this week. On Friday, the Rams head coach said about Evans,
“Zach’s a guy that’s continuing to learn.”
That can be taken a few different ways, but it also doesn't necessarily scream that this guy is going to be starting on offense like much of the Puka Nacua dialogue this offseason.
Matthew Stafford kind of alluded the the trust level during his press conference this week. Said Stafford,
“ I think even back to the last game,Zach’s first play is this really intricate kind of motion that he’s got. And it’s like, all right, you got to get out there, a little bit and just, so I’d spend a little extra time talking about that...I think the biggest thing is everybody gains experience and gains trust through repetition and success...The more times you do it as a player individually, whether you’re a young guy, an old guy, and you do it with success, the more confidence you get, the more trust you gain in your teammates, yourself, coaches gain in you all that.”
The biggest question for Evans this week was whether or not he could prove that he can be a guy that can be trusted in the offense. By the sounds of it, he may still have a ways to go in his development.
What Does This Mean?
It’s clear that the Rams like the things that Evans has done this season in his role on the scout team. That’s the thing, though. Most of Evans’ reps have come on the scout team. The Rams don’t necessarily have concerns when it comes to Evans, but they may not trust him a full-time role just yet. This will be a good opportunity for him, but given what was said this week, it’s hard to see him being the featured guy in the backfield.
Reason for Optimism:
Darrell Henderson was brought back because of his familiarity in the offense. While the Rams have changed their offensive scheme from zone to gap and had several coaching changes, Henderson still has familiarity in the passing game and is someone who can be trusted in pass protection. Said McVay on Monday,
“You get an opportunity to be able to bring Darrell Henderson back who’s got familiarity, looks good. It was good to see him...Darrell, the familiarity. I’ve always really loved working with Darrell. Smart, conscientious...When he’s played, he’s been really productive whether it be as a runner, as a pass catcher. He’s never been afraid to stick his face on people in protection. He has an understanding and a nuanced understanding of what we’re doing. Even just in the walkthrough, he was able to pick some things up quickly, really coachable. He’s a smart player and so it’s good to be able to get Darrell back.”
Twice McVay used the word familiarity with Henderson and used the phrase “nuanced understanding” on Henderson in the offense. That is something that the Rams and McVay are going to value. The Pittsburgh Steelers have one of the more talented defenses in the NFL. It’s going to be important to have a player at running back who understands protections and where to go with the ball.
The tone didn’t change on Friday when McVay asked about Henderson. The Rams head coach said,
“Darrell came back in. He’s a guy that’s going to be up and active this week. He’s done a great job of being able to quickly re-acclimate himself back to a lot of the things that we’ve done. He has taken good care of himself in the meantime.”
Between Henderson and Evans, that was the biggest endorsement that McVay gave. Henderson got up to speed quickly and has acclimated himself back in the system. LaFleur added on Wednesday,
“Darrell Henderson, he’s been in the system. If it couldn’t be any more seamless.”
Based of of some of the things that were said this week, it sounds like Henderson may be ahead in the offense when compared to someone like Evans just because of his familiarity. What does that look like on the field? That’s the big question, but it’s clear that the Rams have that confidence in Henderson that they may not have yet. The most important thing is having confidence from the quarterback and Henderson also has that. Said Stafford,
“Really talented player. He can kind of do it all, first down, second down, third down, caught the ball out of the backfield well, ran it between the tackles well, outside. I think a talented player that I’m happy to have back.”
While Henderson may need some minor details explained on the sideline or in the huddle, it won’t be to the same extent as Evans. With his familiarity in the offense, being a veteran in the league, and with the personnel, Henderson has an understanding of where he needs to be and when he needs to be there.
Reason for Concern:
There wasn’t really anything negative said about Henderson. The staff and players seemed to be glad to have him back and by all accounts he was getting up to speed fine.
The biggest concern with him is how well he can acclimate to the new blocking scheme and get into “football game shape”. There’s a difference in being in shape and being in game shape. Henderson has been working out, but it will be interesting to see the type of load he can manage in his first football game in almost a year.
What Does This Mean?
Henderson was brought back because of his familiarity in the offense. While someone like Leonard Fournette may have made more sense from a pure schematic standpoint, he doesn’t bring that same level of familiarity or trust that Henderson does. That’s exactly what the offense needs at the running back position.
Several times, McVay and LaFleur alluded to Henderson’s familiarity and how quickly he was getting acclimated into the offense in his first week back. This isn’t to say that Henderson is going to carry the ball 20+ times or get the same looks that Williams did. Simply put, this is a player that the Rams can trust and is a familiar face.
Not a lot was said this week when it comes to Freeman. On Friday, McVay said about Freeman,
“He’s smart, conscientious. He’s been ready for this opportunity.”
It’s worth noting that Freeman has been leading the running back drills during the media viewing portion. Does that mean anything? That’s the big question everyone outside of the building is trying to find out the answer to before Sunday.
As I told @Michael_Fabiano when it comes to RBs rotation, I could see a blue sky and the Rams will turn it purple by Sunday. So please take with a grain of salt. But drills order (limited viewing for media) has gone: Freeman, Evans, Henderson, Gaskin.— Jourdan Rodrigue (@JourdanRodrigue) October 20, 2023
Like Freeman, not a lot was said about Gaskin which makes sense. It’s possible that he’s not even active on game day. The Rams typically keep three running backs on the active game day roster. Said McVay this week on Gaskin,
I don’t know Myles really that well. So I’m looking forward to kind of being able to see him work...Being in Minnesota, being in Miami, there is some familiarity and he’s got a skill set that’s intriguing. I liked what I’ve seen from him.
That was the overall messaging with Gaskin. He’s a guy that the Rams are looking forward to working with, but not a player that they know very well. If Gaskins does eventually work his way up the depth chart, it may be a few weeks before he gets live-game reps.
What Does this all mean?
It’s all just a giant puddle of mud.
As The Athletic’s Jourdan Rodrigue put it,
“The team is workshopping different combinations of players as they install their game plan for the week...The Rams will develop a rotation plan through the week. What that manifests as on Sunday quite literally remains to be seen, and could even change from there over the next few weeks.”
There’s not a clear picture here on who had the edge, but Henderson may have the slight advantage just given his familiarity in the offense. As mentioned, the Rams praised that aspect of Henderson several times. That is something that they will value.
Evans is a player that the Rams like, but it’s clear that they don’t think he’s necessarily ready. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The plan with Evans seemed to be to develop him during his rookie season. However, the injuries to Kyren Williams and Ronnie Rivers have sort of thrown a wrench into that plan.
Freeman meanwhile is someone that has been in the building, albeit on the practice squad, since July. It’s hard to see him being thrown into a starting role.
The rotation will likely be a mixture between Henderson, Evans, and Freeman depending on the situation. Just given the familiarity, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Henderson dominate the snap count, but the overall carries be relatively even.
Good luck putting this puzzle together, because right now, all of the pieces look the same.