As football fans bask in the glow of the start of another NFL season as training camps begin to open in late July, there is always a hidden boogeyman lurking in the shadows to spoil the fun. The injury bug strikes suddenly and unmercifully, devastating fan bases and fantasy football managers alike with its selfish acts. On Tuesday, the injury bug dealt its first major blow of the 2021 preseason.
Los Angeles Rams running back Cam Akers suffered a torn Achilles and will miss his entire sophomore season—a year in which fantasy managers had him in the RB1 conversation and the Rams were set to lean on him heavily in hopes of returning to the Super Bowl. Now, fantasy managers are left scrambling to figure out Los Angeles’ backfield situation right as fantasy draft season is picking up steam. Where do the Rams, and fantasy managers, go from here?
Akers was ranked as the RB11 and No. 17 overall player in my preseason rankings before his injury with an ADP of 16.8 in PPR formats. My projections had Akers poised for a 1,312.5 rushing yard, 10.63-touchdown season with another 27.5 catches and 288.75 yards in the receiving game when factoring in two missed games for potential injuries. That was a projected weekly fantasy points total of 16.76, which would’ve ranked among the top 10 running backs last season.
Akers was clearly sought after as a player by fantasy managers, but his potential role was a major factor in his high ranking/ADP as well. How valuable is that role with a replacement player?
First up to take over as the Rams’ starting running back is Darrell Henderson, the 2019 third-round draft pick out of Memphis. After limited work as Todd Gurley’s backup in his rookie season—falling behind both Gurley and Malcolm Brown in carries and snap count—many expected Henderson to be the bell-cow for Los Angeles in 2020 following Gurley’s release. Instead, the Rams used the 52nd overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft to select Florida State’s Akers. The three-headed monster of Henderson, Akers, and Brown played hot potato with snap counts until Akers really took over as the clear lead back in Week 13. In the end, Henderson only led Rams running backs in snaps four times in 2020 (five if you count a tie with Brown in Week 3).
What’s immediately different about Henderson’s situation this year is the competition around him. With Akers injured and Brown in Miami, the other running backs on the roster include strong special teamer Raymond Calais, 2020 UDFA Xavier Jones, 2021 UDFA Otis Anderson, and 2021 seventh-round pick Jake Funk—not exactly a murder’s row of competition. While it feels likely the Rams will bring in a veteran presence via free agency (Adrian Peterson, Le’Veon Bell, Duke Johnson, Devonta Freeman, Frank Gore, Gurley, etc.) or trade (Royce Freeman, Phillip Lindsay, etc.), the starting job is Henderson’s until further notice. With that being the case, what type of season can he have?
As with all of my projections, we need to start with the foundation of how many times the Rams and head coach Sean McVay want to run the ball. Over the last three years, McVay has averaged 27.77 runs per game. Running backs have accounted for 81.55% of those attempts. So over the course of a 17-game season, Rams running backs should receive about 385 total carries or about 22.65 attempts per game. The lead back for the Rams over the last two years, on a per-game basis, has averaged 13.14 carries per game. That’s about a 58% share of the total running back carries. Given the lack of established options on Los Angeles’ depth chart, that percentage feels low—especially compared to Akers’ 74.16% rushing share from Week 13 on (including playoffs) last season. A more reasonable share is around the 65% mark Gurley saw back in 2019. Let’s use that for our projection, as well as factoring in a couple missed games—Henderson missed three games in his rookie season plus one regular-season game and both postseason games last season.
Using the rates above for a 15-game season, Henderson should receive about 221 carries. Based on his career yards-per-carry average, that should come out to roughly 962 rushing yards. Based on the average touchdown rate of the Rams’ lead back over the last couple seasons, weighted toward Henderson’s own mark from last season, Henderson should find the end zone on the ground about 9-10 times. In the receiving game, the Rams’ lead snap-getter at running back has seen about a 7% target share over the last two seasons. Over 15 games, that would mean about 40 targets for Henderson (although I’m willing to gamble on this being a conservative estimate). At Henderson’s career 66.67% catch rate and 6.53 yards-per-target average, that comes out to about 27 catches and 261 receiving yards (plus another touchdown).
My projections have Henderson’s stat line as:
- 15 games played
- 220.84 carries
- 961.95 rushing yards
- 9.74 rushing touchdowns
- 40 targets
- 26.67 receptions
- 261.33 receiving yards
- 1 receiving touchdown
- 213.44 total fantasy points
- 14.23 fantasy points per game
Those numbers will place Henderson as my RB23 and a borderline top-50 overall player in PPR who should be drafted in the late fourth or early fifth round in 12-team leagues.
These projections place Henderson in RB2 territory in the same tier as players like Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Melvin Gordon, Mike Davis, Josh Jacobs, J.K. Dobbins, and Chase Edmonds in my rankings—anywhere between RB20-25 seems appropriate for Henderson with the information we have available to us now. Keep in mind, there is already some built-in wiggle room for a veteran to be brought in for these projections. Unless the Rams bring in a star, Henderson should be able to return flex value at worst this season if he stays relatively healthy. Do keep an eye on his health status as training camps open, though.