It took four years toiling as an understudy for Todd Gurley before Rams running back Malcolm Brown got something close to equal billing and opportunity during important stretches of a game.
Brown signed with the Rams as an undrafted free agent in 2015, the same year the team selected Gurley with the 10th pick in the NFL draft.
As Gurley became one of the league’s most dynamic and well-compensated players, Brown quietly built a career as a special-teams standout and capable backup. He was so valuable, the Rams in March matched an offer sheet he received from the Detroit Lions and signed him to a two-year contract.
In the 30-27 season-opening victory over the Carolina Panthers, Brown showed he was worthy of the investment. He rushed for a career-best two touchdowns and, perhaps more importantly, proved he could produce in an expanded role as the Rams attempt to manage Gurley’s workload.
Brown is expected to get more chances Sunday, when the Rams play the New Orleans Saints at the Coliseum.
“Any opportunity I get,” Brown said this week, “I just seize the moment.”
While Gurley rushed for 97 yards in 14 carries against the Panthers, Brown rushed for 53 yards in 11. Gurley, the NFL touchdowns leader last season, looked on from the sideline as Brown scored twice in a game for the first time as a pro.
“He went in there and did his thing,” Gurley told reporters after the game.
It was an impressive season debut for Brown, who had not played since last Dec. 2, when he suffered a broken collarbone in the Rams’ road victory over the Lions.
“I was just very excited to get back and get out there because I haven’t played in so long,” Brown said. “A lot of people really haven’t seen me play … in the flow of an actual game like that.”
Brown, 26, signed with the Rams after playing in college for Texas. In his first four NFL seasons, he got 10 or more carries in a game six times. But those were either during blowouts or when Gurley was held out to rest for the playoffs.
Coach Sean McVay has described Brown as “a starting-caliber back” who happened to be on the same team as an All-Pro.
Against the Panthers, the 5-foot-11, 222-pound Brown nimbly changed direction while reading blocks. He showed speed and power while dragging would-be tacklers for extra yards.
“Malcolm doesn’t get a lot of credit at times, but he has been a steady guy, what we have needed — really truly needed — for the last few years,” quarterback Jared Goff said Sunday. “He just goes out there and produces, doesn’t say much and just does his thing.”
Before he was injured last season, Brown rushed for 212 yards in 43 carries, and also caught a touchdown pass. The Rams had lost other players to season-ending injuries — receiver Cooper Kupp among them — but the news regarding Brown appeared to momentarily shake the usually unflappable McVay.
Two weeks later, Gurley’s left knee required medical attention during a loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. The Rams subsequently signed veteran running back C.J. Anderson and — with Gurley sidelined — Anderson starred in the final two regular-season games. He then shared carries with Gurley through the playoffs as the Rams advanced to the Super Bowl.
“It was a tough mental battle throughout that, being happy for everybody, but at the same time wanting to play,” Brown said during training camp. “As a competitor, you want to get out there and play with your teammates.”
When the 2018 season ended, Brown became a restricted free agent. He did not know whether he would play again for the only NFL organization he has known. The Rams had decided not to re-sign Anderson, and then the Lions made their offer to Brown.
“There was a time where I was like, ‘Man, that might be where I end up,’ ” he said.
The Rams matched the offer sheet and signed Brown to a two-year, $3.3-million contract.
“It’s a great feeling to be wanted by an organization,” Brown said, “and I definitely felt that.”
In April, the Rams selected Memphis running back Darrell Henderson in the third round of the NFL draft. The move ostensibly was made to give McVay a versatile weapon similar to James White of the New England Patriots. But it also provided another insurance policy if Gurley is slowed or sidelined.
All three backs are expected to be deployed Sunday in a rematch of the NFC championship game. Brown was sidelined for that 26-23 overtime victory, but earlier in the season against the Saints caught a short pass and acrobatically scored a touchdown.
His role will be larger this time around after generating buzz and newfound recognition.
“Just a little bit more hype,” he said, chuckling. “I’m just trying to keep the same mind-set I’ve been having for going on five years now, man.
“So I’m just playing ball and sticking to that.”
The Rams reached injury settlements with three players they had waived: defensive back Dominique Hatfield, offensive lineman Aaron Neary and linebacker Trevon Young, a team spokesperson said. ... The Rams were off Tuesday. They resume practice Wednesday.