It looked as if the Rams were investing in an insurance policy.
In last year’s draft, they selected running back Darrell Henderson in the third round, a curious move by a team that 10 months earlier bestowed upon Todd Gurley one of the largest contracts for a running back in NFL history.
Coach Sean McVay sidestepped suggestions Henderson was drafted because of a knee issue that slowed Gurley in 2018. Instead, he described it as a chance to add a “unique playmaker,” and a change-of-pace element to the offense.
Henderson, for his part, told reporters he thought he would be drafted earlier and that, in time, he would make everyone who passed on him regret it.
Henderson’s time might be now.
The Rams’ decision to cut Gurley opens the door for Henderson, 22, who is expected to team with Malcolm Brown in the backfield during the 2020 season.
The Rams might opt to sign another moderately priced veteran, or draft a running back. But for now they will follow the trend of most other NFL teams that have forsaken high-priced featured running backs for a more economical tandem.
Before the 2018 season, the Rams signed Gurley to a then-record $60-million extension that included $45 million in guarantees. Had Gurley remained on the roster this season, he would have carried a salary-cap number of $17.3 million.
Brown’s cap number is $1.15 million and Henderson’s $959,000, according to overthecap.com. John Kelly, a sixth-round pick in 2018 who spent most of last season on the practice squad, has a cap number of $750,000.
So the Rams significantly reduced their payroll at running back. But will they see an increase or decrease in production?
With his balky left knee, Gurley rushed for a career-low 857 yards and scored 14 touchdowns in 2019.
Brown, Gurley’s backup since signing with the Rams as an undrafted free agent in 2015, has rushed for 769 yards in five NFL seasons. Henderson rushed for 147 yards in 39 carries as a rookie. After suffering an ankle injury against the San Francisco 49ers in the penultimate game of the season, he underwent surgery
At the NFL scouting combine in February, McVay reiterated that he “loved” the 5-foot-8, 208-pound Henderson when he came out of Memphis. Henderson averaged nearly nine yards a carry, rushed for 1,909 yards and scored 25 touchdowns in his final college season.
“He’s got an even-keeled demeanor, he’s a guy that has some burst,” McVay said, adding, that Henderson’s build enabled him to run through and around would-be tacklers. “He’s got a bright future.”
“I’ve got to learn how to get over stuff and make the next play my best play.”
Henderson’s best and worst rookie moments occurred in a Week 6 game against the 49ers.
With Gurley sidelined because of a thigh injury suffered the previous week at Seattle, Brown and Henderson shared the backfield. Brown carried the ball five times during the Rams’ first possession — averaging more than five yards a carry — as the Rams drove to a touchdown.
Henderson gained 22 yards on his first carry and 14 on the next. But a turnover on a pitch from Jared Goff to start the second half led to a 49ers touchdown and eventual 20-7 defeat.
“I’ve got to learn how to get over stuff and make the next play my best play,” he said.
Henderson got 11 carries in games against the Atlanta Falcons and Cincinnati Bengals, but his season ended when he suffered the ankle injury against the 49ers.
Brown, 26, is going into the second year of a $3.3-million contract he received last March after the Rams matched an offer sheet from the Detroit Lions as a restricted free agent.
McVay has described Brown as “a starting-caliber” back, and he looked the part when he rushed for a career-best two touchdowns in last season’s opening victory over the Carolina Panthers.
“Any opportunity I get,” he said before starting in place of the injured Gurley against the 49ers, “I just seize the moment.”
McVay designed an offense for multiple backs during his three seasons as the Washington Redskins’ offensive coordinator.
In 2014, Alfred Morris was a 1,000-yard rusher. But in 2015, McVay utilized Morris, Matt Jones and Chris Thompson. In 2016, Robert Kelley, Matt Jones and Thompson shared the load.
With Gurley gone — he signed a one-year contract with the Falcons on Friday — McVay might summon his previous concepts.
And Henderson can prove he was worthy of a higher pick.