Cam Akers or Darrell Henderson: Who is the Rams RB1?

by Blaine Grisak
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The Los Angeles Rams surprised some last season when they drafted running back Cam Akers in the second round. After drafting Darrell Henderson out of Memphis the year before, some thought that Sean McVay would hand the reigns over to him following the release of Todd Gurley.

That was not the case.

Instead, the Rams drafted Akers and for the most part, the two backs split carries in 2020. Akers finished with 145 carries for 625 yards to Henderson’s 138 for 624 yards. Henderson got the bulk of the load while Akers was dealing with a rib injury early in the year. Contrarily, Akers got the majority of the work at the end of the season when Henderson dealt with an injury of his own.

Despite their similar stats, Akers is seen by many fans as the running back who had a better season. Because of that, many fans are excited for what Akers can do in year two and if he can expand his rookie role.

That’s not to say that Akers doesn’t deserve it, but Henderson’s body of work shouldn’t be forgotten either. It wouldn’t be surprising to see McVay roll with the hot hand during the season once again in 2021. Henderson isn’t going to be phased out of the offense or become strictly a third-down back.

Darrell Henderson’s 2020 Season

Despite just going into year two, some considered Henderson to be a bust for the Los Angeles Rams given his small workload during his rookie season. Henderson put those words to bed pretty early during his sophomore campaign.

In Week 2 against the Philadelphia Eagles, “Hendo” racked up a career high 81 yards on just 12 carries and it was his touchdown late in the fourth quarter that put the game away. Henderson followed that up with a 114 yard performance against the Buffalo Bills the following week. The Bills game was the lone game in which Henderson got 20 carries.

Henderson got 10 or more carries just eight times last season. In those games, he averaged 58.2 yards. Among those games, he got just 15 or more carries three times. In those games, he averaged 71.7 yards.

The Rams didn’t have the individual 100 yard rushing games that they normally have under McVay. Both Henderson and Akers each had a single 100 yard game. However, Henderson did have five games in which he broke 50 yards which was  also the same number as Akers.

Henderson’s best stretch of games during 2020 game in Weeks 3-7. In those games, he had 72 carries for 324 yards.

The last thing that shouldn’t go unnoticed for Henderson is his ability to find the end zone. Henderson tied with Malcolm Brown for five rushing touchdowns, but led Rams running backs with six.

Four of Henderson’s five rushing touchdowns all came inside the five yard line. Having a nose for the end zone, especially deep the red zone shouldn’t be understated. There were two sequences at the end of last season that come to mind. Against Seattle in Week 16, the Rams had four running plays inside the five, including two from the one-yard line. The Rams turned the ball over on downs.

The following week against the Cardinals, the Rams again got stuffed inside the five – twice. The Rams had two unsuccessful plays from the one-yard line in one sequence and Akers fumbled from the two on another.

Henderson was hurt in Week 17 against the Cardinals and got hurt just before the sequence against Seattle. It’s obvious that his presence there was missed.

Cam Akers 2020 Season

Entering Week 1, it seemed as if Akers was going to be the Los Angeles Rams’ featured back right out of the gates. The rookie led the team in carries with 14 against the Dallas Cowboys, but only had 39 yards.

A rib injury against the Eagles sidelined him for the most part until Week 8, however, he did have a 61 yard performance against Washington in Week 5.

Akers finally had his coming out party in Week 13 against the New England Patriots. His 171 yards marked the fourth-most by a Rams rookie in a single game in franchise history. Akers then had another 100 yard game against the Seattle Seahawks in the wild card round of the playoffs followed by 90 yards in the loss against the Packers.

Maybe its recency bias, but these three performances by Akers late in the year seem to have  him ranked much higher than Henderson among fans. Akers’ 171 yards against the Patriots accounted for 27% of his season total. It’s also worth pointing out that the Patriots also ranked 32nd in run defense DVOA

That’s not to discount what Akers did. He still had an incredible rookie season. Akers had 15 or more carries in four games and averaged 85 yards in those games which is almost 15 yards more than Henderson in similar circumstances. Akers had 10 or more carries six times and averaged 69.5 yards in those games. Again, that was more than 10 more yards than Henderson in similar circumstances.

What Do The Analytics Say?

When you watch the film, it shows that Henderson had a better first half of the season for the Los Angeles Rams and Akers had a better second half. It also shows that McVay seems to trust Akers to carry the load more than Henderson as Akers had three games at the end of the season with more than 20 carries. As noted earlier, Henderson had one.

However, we’re going to take everything into account here and look at some of the advanced stats and analytics. We’ll start with PFF:

Among running backs with more than 120 carries, Henderson had the 14th best running grade with a 79.2. This led running backs like James Robinson, Alvin Kamara, and Miles Sanders. It also just trailed Aaron Jones.

Meanwhile, Akers ranked 30th with a 69.5 rushing grade which was sixth worst rushing grade in the group. The running backs below him were Kenyan Drake, Adrian Peterson, Giovanni Bernard, Frank Gore, and Todd Gurley.

This isn’t the end-all, be-all. Obviously, Alvin Kamara is better than Henderson, but it’s simply one data point.

Next we’ll look at Football Outsiders which does a better job of giving the numbers context. However, again, Henderson fared better analytically than Akers. The first stat we’ll look at is defense adjust yards above replacement (DYAR).

According to FO, DYAR gives the value of the performance on plays where the running back carried/caught the ball compared to replacement level, adjusted for situation and opponent and then translated into yardage.

In this stat, Henderson ranked ninth which ranked just below Antonio Gibson and above players like Sanders and Chris Carson. In this same stat, Akers ranked 41st. Again, that’s a huge gap with Henderson inside the top-10 and Akers in the bottom-10.

Football Outsiders is infamous for their DVOA statistic. Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) represents value, per play, over an average running back in the same game situations.

Henderson came out very well in this stat ranking FOURTH. He trailed just Nick Chubb, JK Dobbins, and Alvin Kamara. Aaron Jones rounded out the top-5. The question becomes, is Henderson an anomaly or is he better than we think?

Akers again ranked in the bottom-10 in DVOA among running backs, ranking 41st.

The final stat that we’ll look at from Football Outsiders is success-rate. This number represents the player’s consistency, measured by successful running plays divided by total running plays.

Of the three stats that we’ve looked at, this is the only stat that Henderson ranks outside the top-10 at No. 11 with a 55% success rate. Akers came in at 34th in the bottom-15 with a 48% success rate.

In success rate determined by Sharp Football Analytics, Henderson also graded better than Akers at 55.1% which was above league average (50.8%) compared to 50.3%.

The final advanced numbers we’ll look at come from Pro Football Reference. These aren’t necessarily analytics, but simply advanced numbers that you don’t find on the stat sheet normally.

Last season, Henderson had 342 yards before contact. He also had 282 yards after contact and eight broken tackles. Akers meanwhile at 321 yards before contact and 304 yards after contact. Akers had six broken tackles.

What to Expect in 2021?

When you look at the pure numbers of Akers and Henderson, they’re pretty similar. Both Akers and Henderson had under 150 carries. That’s over 100 carries less than the average of the top-10 running backs in 2020.

If you give Akers and Henderson 258 total carries last season, Henderson would have been on pace for 1161 yards and Akers would have had 1109.

In today’s NFL, it’s good to have two running backs that can carry the load if needed. That’s how it will likely be in the Rams offense in 2021 as well. The Los Angeles Rams made the mistake of taking a talent like Todd Gurley and burning him out early in his career.

It’s unlikely that Akers or Henderson see more than 225 carries in a season. Akers might near or just break 200, but these two players will continue to share the overall load. This isn’t one player who will be RB1. In this system it’s going to be RB1a and RB1b.


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