Across the first five years of his career, Todd Gurley made many fans of the St. Louis and Los Angeles Rams very happy. He was one of the best (maybe the best) running backs of that time. But as is common with running backs, his health and durability began to decline, leading to his eventual departure.
In his wake, the Rams and head coach Sean McVay have turned to three RB options to help fill the void of Gurley – Cam Akers, Malcolm Brown, and Darrell Henderson Jr., all of which have been able to contribute so far in their young careers. While each of these backs has had various impacts, they each have helped contribute to one common goal – effectively being able to replace Gurley and not make the Rams miss him one bit.
Rams factors: Gurley’s 2020 contributions
Gurley’s arrival to the Atlanta Falcons this offseason came with some cautious expectations, something that has followed him ever since his knee injuries starting popping up frequently. And while the hapless Falcons team has been struggling so far to start the 2020 NFL season, there has been some real up and down moments for Gurley and the offense.
Across nine games, Gurley has put up a respectable 154/584/9 line on the ground, hauling in only 15 passes for 79 yards and no receiving scores – so his rushing numbers are just below his normal pace when he was healthy for the Rams, but his passing game stats have been quite abysmal.
Having a dip in his passing game attention is absolutely expected with the kind of pass-catching weapons that the Falcons have, as Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, and Hayden Hurst all have higher priorities for quarterback Matt Ryan, and even fellow RB Brian Hill has vultured some passing work targets in lieu of getting Gurley on the field.
Ryan’s affinity for targeting backs in the passing game is not an element that has followed him through his career, but Devonta Freeman certainly got his fair share of passing game work when he was a member of the Falcons, so the lack of work that Gurley has gotten certainly had been a letdown.
The Florida State rookie was taken in the second round of the 2020 NFL Draft, quite the hefty investment for a back that seems fully entrenched as the third option for the Rams.
However, it is quite fair to understand the wall that rookies had to overcome this year with no preseason slate and an abbreviated training camp schedule, making each of their individual reps that much more important.
Akers had a productive career with the Seminoles, obviously why he was drafted in the second round, but he is the leanest back of the top three options, offering up a different kind of physique than McVay is used to having, potentially providing the justification for not earning McVay’s trust – yet.
The most potential in this RB group surrounds Akers, which certainly is a benefit of the draft and develop role that the Rams’ front office looks to be taking. Pairing Akers with an upstart offense as soon as 2021 would fit well into the long-term plan for LAR.
What can be understood from Akers’ season so far though is that he does have a bunch of work to make up, but his future with this team certainly can help bridge the gap from Gurley’s departure.
The unsung hero in the LAR backfield is Brown, who has had his fair share of breakout moments as the no. 2 option for the Rams’ backfield.
In relief of Henderson, during both rest snaps and time missed due to injury, Brown has looked like a bowling ball when toting the rock, for sure solidifying his backup role in the backfield.
Earlier in the season, the slight potential of having Brown step into the starting role in the first year post-Gurley was very real. But Henderson took that role by storm, leaving both Akers and Brown to fend for the scraps that he did not get.
Brown is a player that certainly prototypes as the most likely back to directly replace Gurley’s contributions, as his rushing and pass-catching abilities seem to match up the best to what Gurley directly brought to the table.
Even with those types of similarities, Brown still has not been able to crack the starting lineup (in non-injury situations), and with how his skills directly translate to the Gurley-sized hole that was left, it is certainly interesting how his role currently is.
But what he brings to the table is a big proponent in the replacement process of Gurley, which has gone very swimmingly so far.
Darrell Henderson Jr. has also helped the Rams
The current starter for the Rams, Henderson is a stronger runner who is built like a between-the-tackles plodder with surprisingly soft hands in the receiving game. Not widely expected to be the starter before the year began, Henderson has slid into that role quite nicely.
It is not easy to make both a coaching staff and a fan base forget about a franchise icon like Gurley, who produced immense value and numbers during his time with the Rams, yet Henderson’s production in 2020 has – so far at least – done exactly that.
His health concerns aside, Henderson has been the top option for the Rams this year. Five games have produced 12+ carries, with four of those games producing 14, 15 (2x), and 20 carries, respectively. While his receiving skills are nearly invisible (10 catches through 8 games this year), he certainly has a slight ability in that regard, making him a fringe two-way option.
Henderson’s emergence can – and should – be tied to the reasoning that both the coach staff and front office pushed forward with for why they let Gurley walk. The type of player that Gurley was differs a ton from the player that Gurley currently is, and it seems like the Rams were correct in their timeline.
The trio of Akers, Brown, and Henderson – while all having their respective limitations – seem to have exceeded expectations through just over the halfway point of the season. And with the Rams sporting an above-.500 record in a hotly-contested NFC West division, their rushing attack is going to be crucial in how well they can finish the year.