Los Angeles Rams:
Sean McVay loves himself a bell cow running back. After riding prime Todd Gurley until the wheels fell off, the Rams spent prime draft picks on Darrell Henderson in 2019 and Cam Akers in 2020. Some speculated McVay wanted to implement a rotation, keep his backs fresh, and extend their careers. Nope. He just wanted another bell cow.
The schematic equivalent of moving away from overbearing parents to a rowdy party school across the country, Henderson had struggled to transition from Memphis’ gap run scheme – built on pulling lineman and dictated rushing lanes – to McVay’s more free-flowing zone attack.
Akers, a bigger back who ran more outside zone in college at Florida State, took over midway through 2020 and was force fed over 80% of the team’s rushes, despite a nagging ankle injury. And so it would be in 2021, as McVay gave away when he dubbed Cam his “War Daddy.” But after Akers’ torn achilles, and a late preseason trade for Sony Michel, the Rams’ backfield outlook was hazy heading into the season.
Not anymore. Darrell Henderson has been a revelation from both performance and volume perspectives. Despite missing a game-and-a-half with a rib cartilage injury sustained week two, Henderson is out-touching Michel 52-to-4 when both backs are active – a whopping 93% of the RB touches!
Henderson’s maturation as a runner has been even more impressive. His game has always been built on a frenetic vertical pace, going full speed, all the time, always upfield. But zone running requires patience, balance, active eyes, and pace change. On his first carry week four, Henderson put all these traits on display in executing a run he never could have even dreamed of back in 2019.
While his zone running is not yet perfect, the leaps of improvement pair well with that ruthless full-speed verticality, an excellent run-blocking offensive line and an explosive passing offense. This week Darrell added 1.4 yards to a whopping 5.1 offensive line yards per attempt, both excellent numbers.
Henderson has yet to have the explosive breakout game to rocket him into the upper echelon of fantasy runners. But working in a dangerous offense with a volume monopoly and dramatically improved zone running craft, it is only a matter of time.
Urban Meyer’s short tenure in Duval County has been marred by controversy and questionable decision-making. Nothing has been more egregious than his treatment of 2020 rookie star James Robinson. Robinson, an undrafted free agent, won over Doug Marrone’s staff and made Leonard Fournette expendable with a legendary work ethic and three-phase offensive reliability. He flashed over and over throughout last season as a sound inside runner, reliable pass blocker, steady receiver and dangerous open-field creator.
Despite this found money in their pockets, the Jags spent the offseason trying to replace Robinson. Meyer signed his former Ohio State pupil Carlos Hyde to a two year deal. Then Jacksonville shocked everyone when they spent their second first round pick on Clemson slasher Travis Etienne. While Urban insisted he was going to miscast Etienne as a satellite weapon, Meyer’s Jags clearly did not trust Robinson to be a high-volume every-down back.
It has taken some unfortunate injury luck and failed attempts to feed Hyde, but Robinson has earned his way back into his deserved lead role. Thursday night he handled 19-of-21 running back touches, generating 78 tough rushing yards and two touchdowns. Robinson nearly doubled his offensive line’s production, evading 0.22 tackles per carry while adding 1.9 yards per tote.
Robinson is not an awe-inspiring athlete, but he does literally everything well. Pass pro? Check. Receiving? Check. Elusive? Check. Powerful? Check. Zone running? Check. Gap running? Check.
Robinson possesses that mysterious quality that makes fans question why their favorite ultra-athletic back is not getting playing time – unflinching reliability. He is just going to do what he is supposed to do at a high level, every time. As an undrafted free agent, anticipate repeated future efforts to complement and/or replace JRob. And look for him to rise above over and over again.
Quick Hits: Michael Carter’s week two breakout game has led to a lead role in New York, handling 22-of-32 RB carries the past two weeks. The production has not yet come, but as the Jet’s O-line gels expect Carter to deliver... Myles Gaskin is still the best runner in Miami, but someone needs to tell that to Brian Flores. Gaskin saw his carry total crater to TWO last week, while Malcolm Brown delivered sub-3 yards per carry on eight runs. The Dolphins offense is a train wreck, and an inability to distribute touches to talented players is a contributing factor... Trey Sermon saw a lion’s share of carries for SF and did what I expected – made good decisions and added value with precise foot- and pad-work. Elijah Mitchell is a raw fast runner who fits’ Kyle Shanahan’s idealized mold, so expect him to lead the way when he returns from injury. Sermon is the more skilled runner, but it will take time for that to show through... Clyde Edwards-Helaire has delivered back-to-back 100-yard games. The quick, crafty inside runner has done it with 2nd-level manipulation and improved upfield efficiency out of his cuts. The Chiefs’ offense is an all-timer, and Clyde is a big piece… Javonte Williams went vintage for a thundering 31-yard run this week. But he was still out-carried and out-produced by steady backfield-mate Melvin Gordon. Williams will deliver some inspiring highlights while scheme inconsistencies provide the lowlights you won’t see on Sportscenter.