The Los Angeles Rams received some bad news on Tuesday morning when they found out that Cam Akers had torn his Achilles tendon and would be out for the rest of the season. It’s a heartbreaking blow considering the expectations for Akers heading into the season. While the Rams could sign a veteran to come in, fans shouldn’t be too quick to rule out Darrell Henderson.
The Rams drafted Henderson in the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft. Heading into his third season, he’ll be more than ready for this opportunity. That’s especially true considering he was one-yard shy of being the Rams’ leading rusher last season with 624 yards.
Henderson rushed for 100 yards against the Buffalo Bills in the team’s comeback attempt that fell short and he broke the 50 yard mark in five game. His best stretch of games during 2020 came in Weeks 3-7. In those games, he had 72 carries for 324 yards.
One thing that tends to go unnoticed with Henderson is his ability to find the end zone. Henderson tied with Malcolm Brown with five rushing touchdowns. However, he led Rams running backs with six.
It’s also worth noting that four 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. That’s a key skill for a running back. Henderson is seen as a small, change of pace running back. However, it could be argued that Henderson was the team’s best short-yardage running back last season.
Henderson split time with Akers last season, but made the most of his opportunities. Analytically, Henderson was one of the best running backs in 2020. Among running backs with more than 120 carries, Henderson had the 14th best running grade with a 79.2 according to PFF. This led running backs like James Robinson, Alvin Kamara, and Miles Sanders. It also just trailed Aaron Jones.
This isn’t the end-all, be-all. Obviously, Alvin Kamara is better than Henderson, but it’s simply one data point.
However, this trend continued with Football Outsiders which does a better job of giving the numbers context. According to defense adjusted yards above replacement. 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 Miles Sanders and Chris Carson.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.
The question becomes, is Henderson an anomaly in the analytics or is he better than Rams fans give him credit for.
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.
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. Henderson’s 2.5 yards before contact per attempt ranked 24th in the NFL and his 2.0 yards after contact per attempt ranked 30th. Those two numbers are in the middle of the pack, but are better than some fans might have expected.
Henderson’s 2.5 yards before contact was the same as Derrick Henry. His 2.0 yards after contact per attempt was the same as Josh Jacobs and Antonio Gibson.
There’s little doubt that Henderson has been successful and very efficient given his opportunities. The question remains if he can carry the load. That’s the biggest question for Henderson as it stands. Henderson had 9.2 carries per game. This was far few than Akers’ 11.2 attempts per game which was actually 22 from Week 12 on to the playoffs.
Henderson will also need to show that he can stay healthy. The former Memphis running back injured his ankle in 2019 and was placed on injured reserve late in the season. He was placed in IR again last year after suffering another high ankle sprain.
The Rams are in a good spot at running back. Granted, it sucks to see Cam Akers out for an entire season. However, with Henderson, the Rams are in good shape. It’s not as if the Rams are relying on John Kelly or another undrafted free agent to all of a sudden carry the load.
While the Rams might still sign a veteran free agent, this is Henderson’s backfield now. Given his success in year two in the carries that he had, he’ll be ready for it.