News & Analysis

Why Rams RB Cam Akers is being undervalued in 2020 fantasy football drafts

The Los Angeles Rams are undergoing a big shift with the identity of their offense. Former workhorse running back Todd Gurley was released, with his replacement coming in the form of second-round draft pick Cam Akers. As a former five-star recruit, Akers will look to fill some relatively large shoes.

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Average Draft Position (ADP)

According to Bestball10’s, Akers’ ADP for all drafts throughout the month of June lands him at 55.61, a figure which places him at RB28. The former Florida State back is one of the few remaining “starting” running backs on the board at that point, though the majority of the names that supersede him are likely to be in greater timeshares and potentially even camp battles to determine playing time.

As for the Rams’ backfield, the major competition will stem from former third-round pick Darrell Henderson and undrafted free agent Malcolm Brown. While both Henderson and Brown may find some work in the rotation, it’s likely the Rams ultimately roll with Akers as the lead back, limiting the potential contributions of the remaining two. Henderson has the potential to work his way into the rotation more than Brown does, particularly as a pass-game back.

Vacated Touches

Since 2017, no running back ran more zone-based runs than Gurley’s league-leading 495 attempts. Not only did Gurley receive a massive volume of work, but he was also very productive. No running back gained more rushing yards (2,358), rushing touchdowns (21) or first downs (118) on zone runs. In addition to those box-score stats, Gurley ranked third in rushing yards after contact (1,520) on zone runs and 11th in yards after contact per attempt. Gurley’s PFF grade of 90.0 (playoffs included) ranked first among all running backs with 100-plus attempts on zone runs.

Gurley’s workload was among the league’s largest, as he touched the ball 343, 315 and 254 times in three seasons under Sean McVay, and that doesn’t even factor in the four games he missed over that span. Dating back to just last season, the Rams will have 254 vacated touches with Gurley departing – opening a ton of work for the remaining backs on the roster.

Transitioning to the NFL

As I mentioned above, the Rams deployed zone-based runs at the sixth-highest rate in the NFL over the last three years with a total of 724 attempts. That philosophy bodes well for Akers, as he attempted the 16th-most zone-based rushing attempts in college football in 2019 – a total of 231 attempts. Not only does Akers fit the offense incredibly well, but his missed tackles forced on runs (76) figure ranked him fourth in the entire landscape of college football. And his missed tackles forced per attempt ranked similarly well, as his 0.33 figure ranked him 14th in 2019. Akers has proven his ability to break tackles at a relatively high clip and is probably going to offer more juice than an injury-riddled Gurley did in 2019.

The transition should be relatively seamless for Akers for a multitude of reasons. Most notably, Akers has a lot of experience running zone concepts in addition to a ton of familiarity playing behind a struggling offensive line. Ironically, the offensive line of the Rams is not very good – they ranked 26th in rushing yards before contact (397) in 2019.

After two really good years in 2017 and 2018, the offensive line was incredibly lackluster in the run blocking department in 2019. Here is the three-year comparison of the productivity of the offensive line, showcasing just how large of a step back the unit took this past season:

Year

Explosive rushing plays (Rank) Explosive run percentage (Rank) Rushing yards before contact per attempt (Rank)
2017 59 (3rd) 13.3% (8th)

1.8 (1st)

2018

64 (3rd) 14.6% (10th) 1.8 (6th)
2019 40 (22nd) 10.3% (22nd)

1.0 (26th)

The Rams deployed zone-based runs at a slightly lower rate in 2019 when compared to 2018 and 2017, though much of that difference can likely be chalked up to an adjustment when facing 6-1 defenses as defensive coordinators sought to stop the zone-based attack the Rams prefer:

Year Zone-based run % Power-based run %
2017 57% 43%
2018 59% 41%
2019 51% 49%

 Many people are concerned about the Rams' running game, and rightfully so — the offensive line is not one worth trusting. Still, some intrigue remains. As I mentioned above, Akers already has experience in a similar situation from his time at FSU. For comparison's sake, the FSU offensive line ranked 84th in explosive rushing plays (59), 75th in explosive run percentage (17.2%) and 209th in rushing yards before contact per attempt (1.2) in college football last season.

In terms of investment, it won’t cost a significant amount. Akers is readily available in the middle of the fourth round on average (12-team leagues), and while the opportunity cost may cost you a really good receiver, the majority of the remaining running back names just aren’t very exciting.

Projection

Our projection model doesn’t view Akers very highly in full-point PPR leagues. As it stands, Akers is ranked 33rd among running backs, with his projection at only 148.1 total points. Ironically, our projection is quite evenly split on how it views the competition between Akers and Henderson, as it ranks Henderson at RB36 with a total of 140.6 points.

If you align with the projection’s line of thinking, you’re likely to view Henderson as a superior option, particularly when weighing their respective ADP. Henderson is currently going at an ADP of 118.91, or RB47 — an investment far less risky than the aforementioned Akers.

If Henderson’s rookie season was any indication, the Rams may already view Akers as the de facto starter. Henderson ranked 98th in fantasy points per snap (0.24) and 131st in fantasy points per touch (0.52). Neither figure was very impressive, though the sample size was small, as Henderson only touched the ball 43 times and only registered 93 snaps on the season.

Running Back Usage

Expecting the dominant ground game from 2018 to return is fool’s gold – it likely won’t happen. The expectation should not be that the offensive line drastically improves their play, particularly because the Rams elected to spend almost no resources fixing their offensive line, with the only addition being seventh-round draft pick Tremayne Anchrum. Yet still, even with their struggles in 2019, the Rams still ranked third in red-zone plays and fifth in goal-line plays, and Gurley still managed an RB14 finish (in 15 games).

What we do know is the Rams have heavily favored a one-back approach during McVay’s tenure:

Year RB1 % of touches RB2 % of touches RB3 + RB4 % of touches
2017 62.7% 13.2% 2.2%
2018 60% 9% 14.4%
2019 58% 9.8% 16.2%

 As you can see, the percentage of touches is extremely skewed towards the team’s starting running back – formerly Gurley. The Rams may look to move away from this approach, though McVay’s history with the team suggests otherwise. Logically speaking, the Rams did not invest their first draft pick  —and a second-round pick at that — to sit Akers on the bench. It’s fair to assume Akers is likely the lead dog in this backfield. 

When you factor in the amount of sheer volume McVay has given his RB1’s and the productivity of his offenses (routinely in the red zone), you see why Gurley remained a productive fantasy option in 2019 even though the real-life performance of Gurley and his ground-game counterparts was uninspiring.

As long as the passing game remains productive, the ground game will benefit. With the potential for “cheap” points by way of short-yardage touchdowns, the Rams’ running back stable – mainly Cam Akers – stand to benefit a great deal, even if their real-life performance continues to remain subpar.

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