- Aug 18, 2019
2021 NFL free agency mock draft: Jameis Winston to Bears, Aaron Jones to Dolphins, Ryan Fitzpatrick to Saints
What if free agency were conducted like the draft? Let's forecast the first round
One of the Rams' biggest questions last offseason would be how the team would replace Todd Gurley, the team's bell cow since 2015. As promised, Sean McVay said that the team would have more of a running back by committee approach in 2020. That was certainly the case, as Cam Akers, Darrell Henderson, and Malcom Brown combined to rush for 1,668 yards and 12 touchdowns. The Rams' success on the ground was one of the reasons for the team's return to the playoffs after a one year absence.
While the Rams will likely continue to spread the wealth among their backs, McVay recently touted Akers, who overcame a slow start to lead the Rams in rushing as a rookie. After just 26 carries during the season's first seven games, Akers finished the regular season with 625 rushing yards on 145 carries. His 171-yard effort propelled Los Angeles to a 23-3 win over the Patriots in Week 13. Akers' 131 yards and a score helped the Rams upset the Seahawks in the wild-card round. In a losing effort, Akers rushing for 90 yards and a score on 18 carries against the Packers in the divisional round.
"You could see he's always had a real and authentic confidence, but then as he's getting more and more comfortable for the different ways that we were able to utilize him, I think he can come alive in the pass game," McVay said earlier this offseason, via Stu Jackson of the Rams' team website. "I think he can continue to play at a high level. Really, I think he's an every-down back. I think he's a special player."
Leading up to the draft, Akers was touted as one of the best running backs in the draft. But despite a solid combine performance, Akers was the fourth running back selected, behind Clyde Edwards-Helaire, D'Andre Swift, and Jonathan Taylor. He was picked just ahead of J.K. Dobbins, who was taken by the Ravens with the 55th pick. While Edwards-Helaire and Taylor enjoyed instant success, Akers, Swift and Dobbins took a while to get going. For Akers, things started to come together midway through the season.
"That's when I started to get a good grasp on the run, the concepts, what the coaches wanted, how everything was being blocked," Akers said earlier this offseason. "I kind of settled in and played football and it showed."
Akers' rapid improvement was noticed by his teammates, specifically Pro Bowl cornerback Jalen Ramsey.
"He just got his opportunities and he took advantage of them," Ramsey said. "He got unleashed and he did his thing. (It's) something that I always knew (with) who he was, he had it in him. I can't wait to see him grow from here, and I just pray that he can remain healthy and lead the offense, because we need him."
He's not the flashiest running back, but Akers possesses a unique blend of power and agility. He also has enough speed to turn a moderate gain into a big run. Akers also has patience as well as the ability to hit the hole once it is developed.
"This guy's going to be a big-time player," McVay said. "He got more and more confidence as the season went (on). I have tremendous confidence in him, and I think (running backs coach) Thomas Brown did such a great job being able to help him continue to mature throughout the season. I think this guy has an unbelievably bright future."
Akers will likely be more involved in the passing game in 2021 after catching just 11 passes as a rookie. A more versatile Akers might be a necessity, given that Brown, receiver Josh Reynolds and tight end Gerald Everett are slated to enter free agency. And while a heavier workload presents its own unique set of challenges, Akers appears ready and willing to accept that role.
"Ultimately, I was able to grow as a young man and as a player, and that's all you can really ask for," Akers said of his first season. "When you know you went out on the field and put everything you got on the line, that's all you can really ask for, is to grow and learn from wherever you went wrong. You want to build on that."