IRVINE Calif. –Quarterback Matthew Stafford knocked out Darrell Henderson Jr. for a short completion, then the Los Angeles Rams rushed down the field, squeezing between defensemen for a long gain as fans lining the fences have started to clap.
The next series, Stafford handed over to Xavier Jones, who bounced through a hole to his right, then sprinted into the open field.
Seven practices in training camp, including two in pad practices, marked positive progress for a group of running backs who have a lot to prove in an otherwise Super Bowl caliber team.
Stafford and the Rams received a heavy blow a week before training camp when rising star Cam Akers ruptured his Achilles tendon during practice, causing him to miss the season.
A sophomore pro, Akers was the intended starter after exploding in the final two months of his rookie year. In 13 games, Akers led the Rams with 625 yards and two touchdowns. In two playoff games, he added 221 rushing yards and two more scores.
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But with the season opener against the Chicago Bears on September 12 quickly approaching, there’s no time to mourn the loss. Instead, Aries needs to understand: who do we have and what are they capable of?
A third year pro, Henderson entered the starting point. When the Rams selected Henderson of Memphis with a third-round pick in 2019, coach Sean McVay called on him for a change of pace.
But now Henderson must be a very low back, something he hasn’t done since high school.
“He’s got the ability, there’s no question about it,” said McVay, who led the Rams to three playoff appearances in four seasons as a coach. “It’s really just figuring out what’s going to be the best, I don’t mean the number of steps, but the best way to use it and really have the big picture in mind.”
Talent is not an issue with Henderson, who racked up 771 yards and five touchdowns and caught 20 passes for 196 yards and one touchdown in two seasons.
He has a proven track record as a wide receiver, runner and blocker in pass protection.
“When he got to play he did so many good things and he has a good look in his eyes,” McVay said.
Henderson’s durability is a concern, however, as he developed a knack for attracting bumps and bruises in two seasons. They sporadically sidelined him and ended his first two seasons prematurely as he was put on the injured list in Week 16 of each season with ankle injuries. Both injuries required surgery during the offseason.
“What our biggest challenge isn’t figuring out if he’s able to do that is figuring out that sweet spot for, okay, how to maximize Darrell Henderson, while also involving some of these other guys and finding out what that touch point is to keep him healthy throughout the regular season and a big part of our offense, which he’s going to be, ”McVay said.“ But it’s never been an ability. , it’s just: ‘Is he available?’ because the guy is a baller. “
Injury issues aside, the 5-foot-8, 208-pound Henderson said he was feeling good and prepared for a heavier workload.
“In this position, there’s no way to prevent injury because you get hit with every play,” said Henderson. “It’s a physical position to play and you have to be prepared for it. You have to be mentally prepared and be prepared for anything.”
Following Henderson are several undrafted free agents and seventh-round picks who have no NFL playing experience but are battling for what could represent significant playing time: Jones, Jake Funk, Raymond Calais and Otis Anderson .
“They did a good job,” McVay said. “I’m really encouraged by what I’ve seen from Xavier. I think when you look at Jake Funk he’s been pretty mature, Calais had some great runs here today. Otis Anderson is a guy which, he has certain skills. “
A 2020 undrafted free agent from SMU, Jones started to make a good impression in practice late last season and that momentum continued into training camp.
“I feel a lot more comfortable with the playbook, the game is slowing down,” said Jones, who was mentored as a rookie by former Rams veteran Malcolm Brown, who also climbed the table. depths as an undrafted player. “So I’m having a lot more fun and it’s a great opportunity.”
A seventh-round pick from Maryland, Funk expected to contribute to special teams as a rookie but instead was pushed into multiple reps with offensive starters, something he’s trying to tackle in a mature way.
“Yes, there is an opportunity when another running back falls, but I don’t see it that way,” said Funk, who overcame two ACL injuries to be drafted. “I come into the building with the same mindset every day and just focus on myself and try to be the best version of myself.”
When Stafford arrived in Los Angeles this offseason, he expected to have support with a solid running game – something that was mostly absent during his 12 seasons with the Detroit Lions. While in Detroit, Reggie Bush was the only running back to cover over 1,000 yards in a single season (2013).
As the Rams work on what is becoming a month-long try to determine full-backs behind Henderson, Stafford remained positive on the running back’s outlook and expressed confidence in what he saw.
“To be honest, everyone looked good to me,” Stafford said. “It starts with the guys doing a great job targeting runs and then hitting their blocks and combinations and going. These guys in the backfield do a great job trusting their eyes. Sean does a good job. preparing great races. “