2022 Rams Backfield Breakdown: Ake(r)s and Pains

by Noah Hills · Analytics & Advanced Metrics

The 2022 Rams Backfield Breakdown is part of an offseason series in which I take a deep dive into one NFL team’s backfield and examine the respective rushing performances of the players in it. In doing so, I hope to gain insights into key players from a talent evaluation standpoint, and using that evaluation as a baseline, from a dynasty valuation standpoint. The first installments in the series can be found here.

I’ll start by taking a quick overview of each team’s raw rushing volume and propensity to run the ball in general, and then dive into the player evaluation portion. Before we start, let’s define the metrics I’ll use as part of those evaluations:

Key Metrics

Yards per Carry+ (or YPC+)

The degree to which a player’s raw yard per carry average exceeds or falls short of the collective yard per carry average of all other running backs on his team. Meant to be an overview of a player’s team-relative efficiency.

Box Count+

The degree to which the average amount of defenders in the box that a player faces on his runs exceeds or falls short of the collective average faced by the other running backs on his team. Considering that the outcome of any given rushing attempt is largely dependent on the amount of defenders in the box pre-snap, Box Count+ describes the relative degree of difficulty of a running back’s carries.

Breakaway Conversion Rate (BCR)

Quantifies performance in the open field by measuring how often a player turns his chunk runs of at least 10 yards into breakaway gains of at least 20 yards.

Box-Adjusted Efficiency Rating (BAE Rating)

Improves upon YPC+ by accounting for the box counts that a player carried the ball against. Looks at team-relative yards per carry against each individual box count, then uses a weighted average (based on total carries against each box count) to generate an overall score. A score of 100-percent indicates that a player is producing exactly the per carry output of his teammates, a score above 100-percent indicates that he is outdoing their per carry output to whatever degree, and vice versa for a score below 100-percent.

Relative Success Rate (RSR)

Measures player consistency using Success Rate, but relative to his teammates and adjusted for the box counts that he faced in the same way that BAE Rating is. “Success” on a given carry is defined by gaining 40-percent of yards needed on first down, 70-percent of yards needed on second down, and 100-percent of yards needed on third or fourth down. A score of 0.0-percent indicates that a player is succeeding on exactly the same percentage of his carries as are the other backs on his team, a positive score indicates that he is succeeding more often than his teammates are, and vice versa for a negative score.

Volatility Rating

Measures the disparity between a running back’s percentile ranks in BAE Rating and RSR in order to indicate how volatile a player’s per-carry performance is. High overall efficiency paired with low rate of success indicates boom/bust output, while low overall efficiency paired with high rate of success indicates steady, low-ceiling output. Measures degree of volatility, not quality of performance.

Composite Efficiency Score (CES)

Presents a single-metric overview of the quality of team-relative performance a player produced on his carries in a single season. Calculated using the average of a player’s percentile ranks in Box-Adjusted Efficiency Rating and Relative Success Rate, represents player performance on a 0-100 scale.

Team Rushing Volume

The Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams blazed up with 420 (No. 23) rushing attempts last season. That marked their lowest finish in the Sean McVay era. They’ve consistently been in the top 10 outside of the 2019 season. That season saw them finish No. 18 and average just 1.08 carries per game fewer than league average.

You would think that the acquisition of Matthew Stafford had something to do with that shift in offensive philosophy. Perhaps it did. But according to rbsdm.com, the Rams were No. 28 in early-down run rate in neutral Game Script situations (when win probability for either team did not exceed 80-percent) from 2017 to 2020. Their finish in the same metric in 2021 was No. 28. With a point differential that ranked No. 6 in the league last season compared to an average finish of No. 7 from 2017-20, the Rams weren’t blowing people out any more or less often in their championship season than they had been in McVay’s first four years in LA.

Either way, we should expect the Rams to have a relatively pass-focused attack once again in 2022. Given the quality of the offense overall, there are certainly fantasy points to be had in this backfield.

Efficiency Numbers

It was a two-man show at running back after Cam Akers suffered an Achilles injury last season. Both Sony Michel and Darrell Henderson had relatively high-volume roles. Behind them, there was a random spattering of carries from Akers, Buddy Howell, Jake Funk, and Mekhi Sargent. Here are the complete rushing efficiency profiles for each of those six backs:

The extreme concentration of this running game creates a unique situation. One where Michel and Henderson’s team-relative numbers are unusually dependent on each other. In cases like this, it’s helpful to zoom out and examine the historical performances of these runners.

Michel has been essentially the same player for the past three years that he was last season:

An abnormally high Breakaway Conversion Rate boosted Michel’s Box-Adjusted Efficiency Rating in 2020. Still, he hasn’t posted a positive Relative Success Rate since he was a rookie.

Henderson has also produced nearly identical rushing efficiency profiles in each of the last two seasons:

After a college career in which he was one of the most dynamic open-field runners we’ve ever seen followed by a rookie season in which he rode boom/bust production to positive overall efficiency, Henderson has since been one of the least volatile and best overall runners in the NFL.

Howell, Funk, and Sargent should mean nothing to you in dynasty. Akers is currently being drafted as the RB13 in startups, per DLF. He did well to even play last season after suffering a typically-devastating injury prior to training camp. But he was not effective upon his return to the lineup.

Cam Akers

If we increase the sample size of Akers’ rushing performance by including playoff numbers, he posted BAE Rating and RSR marks on 75 carries that each land in just the 3rd-percentile. Both numbers would’ve easily been the worst in the league among running backs with at least 50 attempts last season.

It’s not really fair to judge a guy based on what he did in his first five games back from a torn Achilles. So let’s also zoom out on Akers.

He logged 145 carries as a rookie; posting decent overall efficiency while running with extreme volatility on a carry-to-carry basis. He was able to ride a 79th-percentile BCR to a 55th-percentile BAE Rating. This in spite of a -12.4-percent RSR that lands in just the 9th-percentile. Outside of Adrian Peterson‘s 53.9 Volatility Rating, Akers’ 45.7 was the highest in the league among backs with at least 100 carries in 2020.

So Now What?

Given the respective ADPs of the members of this backfield, the dynasty community seems to be assuming that Cam Akers has an undisputed lead-back role over Darrell Henderson in 2022. I don’t necessarily disagree with that assumption, but considering that he really hasn’t been good even when healthy so far in his career, I’d be scared to death to take Akers at his current price in drafts. Hopefully he’s able to return to the top-level form we saw him show at Florida State.

Henderson is currently being drafted as the RB48. He’s one of the best values in his ADP range as one of the best handcuffs in the league. There’s also chance that he has standalone value even if Akers doesn’t get hurt. I’d much rather have him than the Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Russell Gage types going near him in drafts.

The other backs currently under contract in Los Angeles are Jake Funk, Buddy Howell, Xavier Jones, Raymond Calais, and Javian Hawkins. None of them should have any dynasty value.

Final Word

Cam Akers offers one of the most high risk-high reward profiles among players currently going in the top three rounds of startups. It’s either a total “that sign can’t stop me because I can’t read” display of ignorance or a complete big dick move to take him there. I’m not sure I’ve got the stones to do it. Conversely, I’m hopping all over the upside that Darrell Henderson carries in the 12th round.