This article is part of our Dynasty Watch series.
Cam Akers cruelly suffered an Achilles' tendon tear, ruling him out for the 2021 NFL season and crossing out a universal top-15 pick from the draft pool. Akers was projected to play a foundational role in the Rams' high-scoring offense, and his absence will force them to regroup.
The free agent options are slim – names like Duke Johnson, T.J. Yeldon and Le'Veon Bell top the list. Todd Gurley and Adrian Peterson are still seeking work, too. While any of these names might theoretically provide the Rams renewed depth, it's unlikely that any of them offer an upgrade over the Rams' in-house options. This is a team with Super Bowl ambitions, so if they make any move it should be for an upgrade over the current options. That would probably require a trade, and there are a handful of affordable options if the Rams seek one.
Regardless of whether the Rams trade for help at running back, Darrell Henderson will likely be the Rams' most productive running back this season. Although Akers was expected to secure a workhorse role this year, there was always reason to believe Henderson was a similarly competent runner to Akers. Henderson was almost exactly as productive as Akers in 2020, running for 624 yards and five touchdowns (4.5 YPC) to Akers' 625 yards and two touchdowns (4.3 YPC). What Henderson lacks relative to Akers is a power element and workhorse frame. So while Henderson can probably keep up with Akers on a per-play basis, he probably can't give the Rams as many plays of that quality as Akers could have. While the upside is obvious, there's also risk in chasing Henderson at his new ADP if it surges into the top four rounds.
Henderson is part of the solution, but there will probably be remaining slack even if so. The main in-house options aside from Henderson are both sub-210 pound backs, limiting their power and workload utility.
-Xavier Jones might be the first one up after Henderson, as the second-year undrafted player out of SMU convinced the Rams to keep him over former Tennessee sixth-round pick John Kelly last year. Although he only played special teams last year, Jones was a five-year starter at SMU and is about as battle-tested as a player with zero offensive snaps can be. Jones' problem is he's short on tools – at 208 pounds he's the same weight as Henderson, but much slower.
-Jake Funk is the second-leading favorite to back up Henderson at the moment. The seventh-round pick out of Maryland can threaten the open-field with standout short-area quickness and was consistently productive when he saw the field in college, but knee injuries were a recurring issue and indicate a rep count limitation.
-Raymond Calais and Otis Anderson are both on the depth chart as well, but neither is a serious candidate to log many reps. Calais is a firecracker but weighs under 190 pounds, and Anderson is smaller yet (179 pounds) but with none of Calais' track speed.
To summarize, Anderson likely won't make the team and guys like Calais and Funk have snap limits despite the interesting speed they otherwise offer. Jones will clearly make the roster and can give some number of reps on offense, but the Rams value him on special teams and might need to cut his workload there if they're going to give him more running back snaps. They might not want to do that.
The Rams need to win now, and there are running backs on one-year contracts that could be available for affordable trade. The motive and the means are there. If the Rams add a one-year runner and that player is productive in the 2021 Rams offense, then that player could walk in free agency and net the Rams a compensatory pick higher than the one they traded for that player in the first place.
Here are some running backs on one-year deals that might get a look from the Rams scouts in upcoming days. It's reckless to change any rankings over this observation – it's not worth raising any of the following players in your rankings to note this – but it might be sufficient reason to caution that Henderson isn't necessarily the sole heir to Akers' workload.
In no particular order of likelihood:
Ronald Jones, TB
Pros: As a former second-pick who only turns 24 in August, Jones is the most likely on this list to secure a sizable contract and thus valuable compensatory draft pick in 2022 free agency. He's also likely the best pure runner on the list.
Cons: Jones would probably be the most expensive on this list for the Rams to acquire. He's also among the worst in passing situations. While a gifted pure runner, Jones might fit better in power schemes than the punctually-particular concepts Sean McVay uses.
Sony Michel, NE
Pros: Former first-round pick who might be available for cheap on New England's bench. Convincing pure runner with a semblance of pass-catching background, scheme versatility.
Cons: Busted knee – unlikely to secure a big contract in free agency as a result.
Damien Williams, CHI (h/t Alan Seslowsky)
Pros: Almost perfect skill set fit and a workhorse-viable frame (though it hasn't granted him great durability in the past).
Cons: Aging and system-dependent, highly unlikely to draw money in 2022 free agency even if he has a big 2021 season for the Rams. Might be surprisingly costly since the Bears might already value him as a backup, and his 2021 contract, though affordable, is almost fully guaranteed.
Royce Freeman, DEN
Pros: Strong prospect pedigree despite underwhelming NFL career. Polished in passing situations. Frame built for contact and volume. Still young, and could secure a sizable 2022 contract with a pleasantly surprising 2021. Could be available for cheap.
Cons: Nothing especially comes to mind, assuming he's as cheap as he appears.
Jaylen Samuels, PIT
Pros: Should be very cheap to acquire, and at 25 today (Happy Birthday!) he still has developmental upside as a former college tight end. Samuels is legitimately strong in passing situations and has a patient, gliding aesthetic that fits well with the run concepts the Rams use. Very good athlete at 225-plus and might be worth re-signing beyond 2021 thanks to his ability to play tight end and receiver.
Cons: Not a natural power runner despite his burly build. Might never be a natural running back generally and might be stuck in the tweener category as a result.
Jordan Wilkins, IND
Pros: Cheap to acquire. Reasonably gifted as a pure runner, and probably a good aesthetic match. Decent athlete at over 215 pounds.
Cons: More elusive than powerful. Old for his experience level (will be 28 in 2022) and unlikely to draw a big contract in free agency.