Cam Akers Offers Immense Fantasy Football Value Despite a Crowded Rams' Backfield
In fantasy football, we know that opportunity is king when evaluating running backs. Talent matters and talented players eventually make their way to the top of the depth chart.
Running backs with large projected workloads are valuable fantasy commodities and with new faces taking over for several teams, it's time to give Cam Akers a long look.
No More Gurley
Los Angeles Rams' running back Todd Gurley was perhaps the single-most valuable fantasy commodity for the past few years. Since Sean McVay was hired as the Los Angeles Ram's head coach in 2017, Gurley ranked second in carries, fifth in targets, first in touchdowns, and first in fantasy points. His offensive snap rate has been north of 70% all three seasons.
Gurley clearly wasn’t himself last season though, as he was slowed down by his arthritic knee. After ranking top-eight in numberFire’s Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP) per carry in 2017 and 2018, he fell to 24th in 2019. The Rams' offense as a whole also declined -- after ranking top-two in points scored in both 2017 and 2018, it ranked 11th in 2019.
Nevertheless, Gurley still maintained a workhorse role. He ranked fourth among all running backs in total snaps, fourth in routes run, and third in red zone carries. He didn’t earn as many targets as he did in previous years, but his three-year run of ranking top-three in red zone carries was fantasy gold.
As a result of his production decline and egregious contract, Gurley was released by the Rams this offseason and eventually signed by the Atlanta Falcons. Los Angeles still has 2019 third-round pick Darrell Henderson and veteran Malcolm Brown on their roster, but neither showed consistent flashes of good play last season. Henderson was a highly-touted prospect out of Memphis but looked lost in McVay’s zone system after playing in a gap scheme in college. Brown is a reliable presence but is far from an exciting top option.
Henderson and Brown ranked 71st and 36th, respectively, in Rushing NEP per carry among 82 running backs with 30-plus carries last season -- suggesting there’s room for improvement in the Rams' backfield.
Akers Joins the Rams
Enter Cam Akers, who was drafted by Los Angeles in the second round of this year's draft. Akers averaged 5.0 yards per carry at Florida State, a fairly pedestrian rate for a college player, but he also ran behind one of the worst offensive lines in college football. He was hit at or behind the line of scrimmage on 30% of carries according to Graham Barfield of Fantasy Points.
That experience should help in Los Angeles, as the Rams' offensive line allowed it's running backs to be hit at or behind the line of scrimmage on 21% of runs last season -- which ranked 26th in the league, per Football Outsiders. However, the Rams did rank 19th in adjusted line yards and 29th in open field yards, which suggests there may be untapped potential for success in that backfield.
A few of McVay’s recent comments to the media have been uninspiring, as he’s been quoted saying that he may employ a running back-by-committee approach and split up the workload as opposed to having one feature guy. But actions speak louder than words.
It’s telling that Henderson and Brown, respectively, played just 93 and 222 snaps, compared to a less-than-100% healthy Gurley’s 787 snaps -- and the Rams used their first draft selection on a running back, despite many other roster questions. Henderson was clearly not trusted by the coaching staff last season, as over 75% of his snaps were played in Weeks 6-8, when Brown was out with an ankle injury and he didn't earn more than eight snaps in any other single game.
Henderson and Brown do have the advantage of NFL experience, while Akers will need to quickly become acclimated in a shortened offseason with COVID-19 concerns. But running backs typically have the easiest transition to the NFL level. In the last decade, 25 rookie running backs have finished top-24 in fantasy points at its position compared to 13 wide receivers (per Rotoworld). Just six quarterbacks and two tight ends have finished top-12 at their respective positions in that time span.
If Akers adapts quickly and proves himself as the best back on the roster, he will have massive upside in one of the most valuable roles in fantasy football. If he doesn’t, he could still carry flex-type value in a committee backfield as the primary third-down back. The opportunities in the passing game and the red zone following Gurley's departure are worth chasing. Akers’ solid floor and heavenly ceiling make him well worth drafting at his mid-round cost.