Promising second-year running back Cam Akers will miss the 2021 season after tearing an Achilles tendon while training. The Los Angeles Rams have a massive hole to fill in the backfield, so where does the franchise turn to replace the fallen rusher?
Running back Darrell Henderson is the most likely option as a direct replacement, especially after veteran Malcolm Brown defected to Miami via free agency this spring. Henderson is efficient and can contribute as a receiver, but it is prudent to be skeptical about whether he can hold up over a full slate of games after he suffered ankle, hamstring and thigh injuries on his way to closing the season on Injured Reserve.
Given the nature of how NFL teams deploy their running backs in 2021, and the importance of the rushing game for Sean McVay‘s play-action passing design, expect LA to find multiple backs to incorporate in Akers’ stead.
Looking at the depth chart, no one clearly fits the bill behind Henderson. A quick look at the RB stable shows second-year man Xavier Jones (5-foot-11, 208 pounds), seventh-round rookie Jake Funk (5-foot-10, 205 pounds), and Raymond Calais (5-foot-8, 188 pounds), a 2020 seventh-round selection by Tampa Bay.
Three backs, zero offensive touches. Zero.
There is a familiar face still available in free agency, however. Running back Todd Gurley remains without a team, and his experience in LA’s system makes this a perfect opportunity for McVay and crew to extend the olive branch a little more than a year after parting ways with their once-prized rusher.
Gurley has struggled to produce yardage in the past two years after being diagnosed with an arthritic knee, so there will be a limitation on his workload. In 2019, he thrived via rushing touchdown prowess before a lackluster ’20 season in Atlanta. This reunion would make so much sense for both parties, provided there are no hard feelings on Gurley’s part. He knows the offense, the Rams clearly have a need for a veteran presence, and Henderson can help keep the former fantasy stud as fresh as one can expect.
Turning 27 prior to Week 1, Gurley has only 474 touches over his past 30 appearance (15.8/game). He averaged 21.7 per contest in the three years before 2019, even seeing 19.2 touches, on average, in his 2015 rookie year on the heels of a knee reconstruction. The 2021 offensive line in LA is far better than what he endured in 2019 and last year while with the Falcons.
Aside from Gurley, the free-agent market offers the following running backs of note: Duke Johnson, LeSean McCoy, Adrian Peterson, Frank Gore, Le’Veon Bell, Bryce Love, and T.J. Yeldon.
McCoy looked toast the past two years, and Gore is a billion in running back years. Peterson is not far behind, though he appeared rather spry in 2020. Yeldon has been little more than just another guy when given chances. Johnson is primarily a pass-catcher, while Love has no experience at the pro level after a severe injury prematurely ended his productive collegiate career.
That leaves us with Bell. He’ll be in his age-29 season and has performed anything like the star fantasy weapon drafters coveted during his Pittsburgh days. He also has a certain disposition the franchise may not want on the roster.
Other names available that are really inconsequential: Dion Lewis, Alfred Morris, DeAndre Washington, Ito Smith, and D’Onta Foreman. Sure, the Rams could add any of these backs, but none of them would move the needle in fantasy.
Fantasy football outlook
With training camps an arm’s reach away, look for LA to move fast. There is no time to waste in getting someone up to speed if they haven’t previously been on the roster.
(Update 7/21): “I don’t know that veteran route is something we’ll rule out, but it’s not something we’re looking at right now,” McVay said. … This could lend more credence to a Gurley signing, but it also may simply be classic “coach speak” by McVay.
Gurley would be a wise addition, regardless of his balky knee, because he doesn’t have to be added as the primary back. Henderson can be given every chance to shine as the lead with Gurley being sprinkled in as a short-yardage and change-up back. And if he he were to look refreshed in camp, reversing the roles is a win-win.
Bell is the next most intriguing option, simply because it is difficult to hold his time in New York against him. The offensive personnel around him was a mess, the defense struggled to allow the offense to find a rhythm, and Bell had sat out an entire year prior to signing there. Then, after being added by Kansas City, he never was given an earnest chance to succeed. That could be for reasons including his off-putting attitude and diminished skills, but he has limited touches in the past few years and offers the right amount of risk-reward balance to make for a worthwhile fantasy gamble, if signed.
We’ll follow up with analysis once the Rams make a move. Until then, for those in speculative situations — likely reserved to best-ball formats — take a flier on Gurley over Bell, but the latter is an acceptable consolation as a late-round selection in 20-player formats.