There might be no player that Los Angeles Rams fans are more excited about in 2021 than second-year running back Cam Akers. Despite a slow start to the 2020 season in large part because of injuries, Akers finished the season strong. Games against the New England Patriots and then the playoffs against the Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers showed off his potential.
Heading into year two, it is expected that Akers take on a larger role and become that workhorse back like many Rams running backs before him. Before Akers, it was Todd Gurley who put up incredible seasons in 2015, 2017, and 2018. Steven Jackson preceded Gurley and became arguably the best running back in Rams history. And before Jackson it was Marshall Faulk who was a huge part of the Greatest Show on Turf. Then of course, all Los Angeles Rams fans are familiar with Eric Dickerson.
It’s only year two, but Akers will be looking to put his name next to those players. When it comes to the history of Rams running backs, they are nothing short of great.
Year two is a big year for Cam Akers, but in order for him to take that next step and become the workhorse that many expect him to be, he has a lot of improving to do.
It can’t be understated how much of a role and how big of a loss a player like Malcolm Brown will be. Brown was fantastic in short-yardage situations and was also someone that the Rams could trust in pass protection. According to Pro Football Focus, Malcolm Brown led all Rams running backs last season with 67 pass-blocking snaps.
Behind him, Darrell Henderson had 24 reps in pass protection and graded very well with an 83.5 grade.
In last place with only 13 reps in pass protection was Cam Akers. To play all three downs, a running back has to be able to do it all, and that starts with pass protection. To play on third downs and in obvious passing situations, a running back has to be able to hold his own in pass protection.
This means being able to recognize where the blitz is coming from and being willing to be the last line of defense to the quarterback. It’s not that Akers can’t do it, but to this point, it hasn’t been a strength. As noted by The Draft Network’s Joe Marino prior to the draft:
“Has all the physical ability to be a standout pass blocker but reps are often dreadful. Lacks awareness when reading the defense and good coordinators put him in conflict and he usually took the wrong man. Can be passive to lean in with a shoulder instead of getting square, engaging his hands and leveraging his hips. Needs to get coached up.”
If it’s anyone who can coach up Akers, it’s Thomas Brown. However, Akers will need to make big strides in pass protection if he’s going to be a three-down running back at the next level. Last season, in just 13 reps, he allowed one quarterback hit and one pressure. That may not seem like a lot, but in just 13 reps, it’s not great. Pro Football Focus gave him a 51.5 grade in pass protection which ranked 94th.
As it stands, he’s one of the worst graded pass blocking RBs in the NFL and can’t be respected on on third downs. That’s going to need to change if he’s to take that next step.
Darrell Henderson gets a lot of criticism for being injury prone and being unable to stay healthy. However, the same is true about Cam Akers and it seems to get dismissed. Akers has shown that he can carry the load with 20-25 carries in a game. But can he do it over a 17 game season?
It didn’t take long for Akers to suffer his first injury. Early in the year, Akers suffered an injury to his rib cartilage which sidelined him two games and made him generally a non-factor for five weeks. He then suffered an ankle sprain late in the year which forced him to miss another game.
Ankle injuries for running backs happen and a rib cartilage injury should be seen as a fluke thing. However, there are some question marks regarding his ability to stay healthy.
The Los Angeles Rams made the mistake of running Todd Gurley into the ground until he couldn’t go any more. It’s highly unlikely that they’ll make that same mistake with someone of the talent of Akers. However, if Akers is going to be that 20-25 carry guy, he’s going to need to show that he can take the physicality of 17 games.
This goes back to pass protection and being able to trust Akers when it counts. Going back to Florida State, Akers has struggled with ball security. He had ten career fumbles with the Seminoles and lost seven of those. He only had one fumble last season, but it came in a big moment.
In Week 17 against the Arizona Cardinals and going into score, Akers fumbled on the one yard line. With a healthy Kyler Murray on the other side and if the Bears had won, the Los Angeles Rams could have been watching the postseason from their couch. John Wolford took a lot of flack for not being able to score touchdowns, but Akers fumbling on the goal line didn’t help the situation.
Fumbling to this point hasn’t been a large issue with the Rams. However, when they come, they can come in bunches. It was an issue at Florida State, but will need to be something that Akers is continuously aware of with the Rams.
This shouldn’t be seen as a knock on Cam Akers. The Los Angeles Rams have two capable running backs in Akers and Henderson. That seems to be the case with most successful teams around the NFL. The Packers have Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon. The Saints have had Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers did a great job at utilizing two backs last season with Ronald Jones and Leonard Fournette.
Akers may not be that workhorse back early in his career, but that doesn’t mean that he can’t be successful. It also could mean that his career is extended and he sees the longevity that is rare for the modern running back.
In just his second season, Akers is far from a perfect running back. However, if he improves in these areas, there’s little doubt that he can put his name next to the other Rams greats.