“He certainly is very capable,” Rams coach Sean McVay said, chuckling, during a videoconference with reporters. “And he hasn’t been shy about telling me he can still spin it either.”
But the rookie running back is preparing for a prominent role in the backfield as the Rams reshape their run game following a decision to cut Todd Gurley II over the offseason.
“There’s not anything he can’t do,” McVay said about Akers. “That’s why we liked him so much.”
After a virtual offseason program, then a training camp acclimation period over the last two weeks, the Rams open practices Tuesday. The running back situation, which includes an open competition and schematic change, will be under the microscope.
Less than two years ago, the Rams awarded Gurley a record-breaking four-year, $60 million extension, seemingly ensuring that he’d remain an offensive stalwart in L.A. But as the Rams attempt to rebound from a 9-7 season, they’ll turn to a sturdy veteran not named Gurley and two recent draft picks in what’s inching closer to a running-back-by-committee approach rather than a one-man show.
“Whatever role that these guys have us playing,” running back Malcolm Brown said, “I know that all of us will buy into it. Got a lot of different versatile guys. We all have our own skillsets.”
A sixth-year pro, Brown is ready to step up after spending the last five seasons as Gurley’s backup. He will likely share the load with Darrell Henderson Jr. and Akers after the Rams recently invested early draft picks in both players. The Rams selected Henderson with a third-round pick in 2019 and took Akers in the second round in April.
“The goal when we made those two picks over the last few years was to add explosiveness, add vision, add weapons that can run, block and catch out of the backfield,” Rams general manager Les Snead said.
The trio will be tasked with turning around a rushing attack that experienced a sharp decline in production last season. In McVay’s first two seasons as coach, the Rams finished eighth (2017) and third (2018) in rushing but fell to 20th in 2019.
The Rams are hopeful Brown, Henderson and Akers — along with a more experienced offensive line — will provide a boost.
Brown, who signed with the Rams in 2015 as an undrafted free agent, has rushed for 769 yards and six touchdowns in five seasons. Last season, he rushed for a career-high 255 yards and a career-best five touchdowns.
As he enters the final season of his contract, Brown is optimistic about earning an increased role but also has expressed a willingness to help his younger teammates develop.
“I know myself and my mind,” said Brown, who turned 27 in in May. “What I have for myself in that running back room being the oldest guy, is to do my best to bring these young guys along.”
Henderson flashed as a rookie in minimal opportunities. In a Week 6 loss to the San Francisco 49ers, he rushed for 36 yards in consecutive carries. But some mystery remains about the former Memphis standout and the kind of role he can carve for himself.
“The opportunity is there, and everybody gets an opportunity now, just need to capitalize on your opportunity,” said the 5-foot-8, 208-pound Henderson. “I think we all are gonna have a role, so just got to be prepared for our roles.”
That said, it’s Akers — a rookie who was drafted a month after Gurley was released — who is expected to command the most attention in training camp.
In three seasons at Florida State, Akers rushed for 2,875 yards, caught 69 passes for 486 yards and scored 34 touchdowns. As a high school quarterback in Mississippi, Akers produced eye-popping statistics, including 8,140 passing yards and 5,103 rushing yards in four seasons.
McVay described the 5-foot-10, 217-pound Akers as versatile, athletic and tough.
“He can really run any scheme, he can take a handoff from the off-set gun or if he’s in the dot,” McVay said. “That’s what you just liked about him, was the body of work and the versatility. The ability to create plays on his own.”
On draft night Akers said he has the ability to be a three or four-down back.
“I’m somebody who can come in and be a game changer,” he said. “Be everything this team and the fans need me to be and everything they’re expecting me to be.”
Across the NFL, it’s anticipated that rookies might not have as great of an impact compared to past seasons due to the coronavirus pandemic making the offseason completely virtual. However, McVay offered an alternative point of view when asked if Akers could immediately contribute despite no on-field instruction this offseason.
“I think it will give rookies, actually, a better opportunity to not be as stressed and overwhelmed mentally when the full-speed reps start,” McVay said, noting the amount of “above the neck” work accomplished virtually.
For his part, McVay has studied plenty about Akers dating to his high school tape and resume.
“It’s almost like a ‘Madden’ stat-line when you see the stuff he was doing,” McVay said.
So, is there any real possibility the rookie could step in at quarterback as the Rams prepare for this most unusual season?
That still remains unlikely. Though McVay hasn’t entirely ruled out the possibility.
“You never know,” McVay said. “We might have a wildcat package coming to a theater near you.”