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Rams replace Todd Gurley with ‘a three-headed monster’ at running back

Rams rookie running back Cam Akers carries the ball during a practice session.
Rookie running back Cam Akers will likely see plenty of playing time in the Rams’ offense this season.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

They are role models with a common thread.

In star NFL running backs Ezekiel Elliott, Dalvin Cook, Alvin Kamara and Todd Gurley, Rams rookie Cam Akers saw traits worth emulating.

“Guys who can do it all and guys who aren’t one-dimensional,” said Akers, the Rams’ rookie running back. “Guys who can block, catch and run. So, you know, that’s the type of game I want to have.”

Akers is on track for plenty of opportunities to develop this season as the Rams begin the post-Gurley era.

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Gurley, the 2017 NFL offensive player of the year, twice helped the Rams make the playoffs, including a run to the Super Bowl to cap the 2018 season. But the $60-million extension the Rams gave Gurley became a burden, especially with his balky left knee affecting his production.

Cam Akers knows he’s got a long way to go before being the next Todd Gurley, but the Rams rookie running back is eager to prove himself.

In March, the Rams released the three-time Pro Bowl player, leaving coach Sean McVay with multiple options at the position and perhaps no choice but to use all of them.

Veteran Malcolm Brown, second-year pro Darrell Henderson and Akers, a second-round pick, are expected to be used in combination as the Rams attempt to rebound after missing the playoffs last season.

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“What we got now is kind of a three-headed monster back there,” quarterback Jared Goff said.

When informed of Goff’s description, Brown smiled.

“I like the sound of that,” he said.

McVay does not have to look far to gauge the effectiveness of a running-back-by-committee approach.

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Last season, the San Francisco 49ers dethroned the Rams in the NFC West and went on to play in the Super Bowl. Coach Kyle Shanahan gave running backs Raheem Mostert, Matt Breida and Tevin Coleman each at least 123 carries. They combined for 1,939 yards rushing and 19 touchdowns, including four as receivers.

McVay would welcome similar production in a rigorous division that includes the Seattle Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals.

Much will depend on a line plagued by injuries last season. Veteran left tackle Andrew Whitworth is joined by left guard Joe Noteboom (back from knee surgery), center Austin Blythe, guard Austin Corbett and tackle Rob Havenstein.

Malcolm Brown celebrates after scoring against the Chicago Bears on Nov. 17 at the Coliseum.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)
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Brown is in his sixth season with the Rams after signing as an undrafted free agent in 2015. While serving as Gurley’s backup, he has rushed for 769 yards and scored eight touchdowns.

He also earned McVay’s trust. That is perhaps the main reason why Brown is regarded as the favorite to start the Sept. 13 opener against the Dallas Cowboys at SoFi Stadium.

Brown, 27, describes himself as “the oldest guy in the room” in a position group that includes Henderson, 23, Akers, 21, and rookie Xavier Jones, 23, an undrafted free agent who played at Southern Methodist.

“They know I know the stuff,” Brown said.

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New running backs coach Thomas Brown said he calls the veteran “Mr. Reliable” because of his consistency and proficiency running the ball, catching it and as a pass protector.

Despite parting ways with Todd Gurley and Brandin Cooks in cost-cutting moves, the Rams are still expecting plenty of return on offense this season.

“A veteran player that understands the ins and outs of this league and kind of sets the tone for the group from a work ethic standpoint,” Thomas Brown said.

Akers starred at Florida State for three seasons before the Rams selected him with the 52nd pick in April’s draft. After he was chosen, Akers said he could be a “game-changer” for a team that finished 9-7 last season.

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During training camp, Akers flashed the acceleration that makes him, perhaps, the most explosive playmaker among the running backs.

“Got a ways to go from a knowledge standpoint,” Thomas Brown said, “but I tell you what: This guy is coming to work every day and learns from his mistakes.”

Darrell Henderson practices with the Rams on Aug. 18 in Thousand Oaks.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Henderson was a third-round pick in 2019 and was expected to be used as a change-of-pace back with Gurley. He had several notable plays in an early-season game against the 49ers, but also a bad one that resulted in a turnover to start the second half of what became a Rams defeat.

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Henderson got more than 10 carries in victories over the Atlanta Falcons and Cincinnati Bengals but otherwise did not have much opportunity in the second half of the season. He suffered an ankle injury in the second-to-last game against the 49ers and had season-ending surgery.

Henderson looked strong early in camp before suffering a hamstring injury that could affect his availability for the opener.

Thomas Brown described the 5-foot-8, 208-pound Henderson as “a bowling ball at times” when he’s carrying the ball.

“Once he gets rolling,” Brown said, “he’ll be a hard guy to bring down.”

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The triumvirate comes at a bargain price. Brown is in the final year of his contract and carries a salary-cap number of $1.3 million, according to overthecap.com. Akers has a salary-cap number of $1.4 million, Henderson $960,000.

By season’s end, Akers could emerge as the back with the most touches.

“Hopefully,” he said, “by the time September 13th rolls around, I’ll have everything rolling.”

Rams running backs corps

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MALCOLM BROWN: The sixth-year pro is a trusted ball-carrier and pass protector who will be counted on early as younger players earn increased roles.

CAM AKERS: Versatile rookie from Florida State is regarded as the probable heir-apparent to Todd Gurley once he earns coaches’ confidence.

DARRELL HENDERSON: The 2019 third-round pick has impressed teammates and coaches but ankle injury last season and training-camp hamstring issue slowed progress.

RAYMOND CALAIS: Seventh-round draft pick, plucked from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers practice squad, has top-end speed that could make him valuable as a kick returner.

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XAVIER JONES: Undrafted free agent from Southern Methodist showed promise during training camp and earned a spot on the roster in expense of veteran John Kelly.


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