In a conversation this week with my colleagues at East West Football Network, we discussed how we see a transition back to heavy run offenses could be in the near future for many NFL teams. The main points I brought up in this conversation were that teams are building their defenses around a base Nickel defensive scheme, which of course makes teams easier to run on. I think offenses will continue to be successful in 1 RB sets, because if you spread the offense out, and use the play action, the less crowded defensive boxes will be easy to bulldoze through for major gains. Due to this conversation we had, I wanted to take a look at the rookie running backs in the NFC West and project who will be the most successful in their first season in the league. Seeing how three of the four NFC West teams are run first offenses, I expect these young backs to get their fair share of reps this season. Let’s start with the highest drafted of the 4 backs we are looking at today.
Cam Akers – LA Rams
I expect big things from the Florida State product this year, as does the Rams front office seeing how they drafted him in the second round. He is fully expected to be the successor to Todd Gurley, who the Rams parted ways with this off-season. Akers has solid size to be able to run inside and out in the NFL, and he show some ability at FSU to be reliable on check downs in the passing game. The Rams really struggled last year without the presence of a strong running game, so for them to get back on top and take some pressure of Jared Goff, they will need to get back to establishing a solid run game with Akers. The rams have some decent backs in the stable right now as well with Darrell Henderson, John Kelly, and Malcolm Brown, so Akers may not start or be the bell cow right away, but with a strong preseason and first few games, he could establish himself as the future of the Rams running game.
DeeJay Dallas – Seattle Seahawks
To be honest I do not know a whole lot about the 4th round pick out of Miami, but he had half decent numbers as the best offensive weapon for a below average Hurricanes team last year. From what I see after watching a few of his highlight tapes (obviously not getting the full picture) he seems like a shiftier back with solid vision and patience, but one who isn’t afraid to get bruised up and will run through the tackles and lower the shoulder on smaller defenders. The good thing is that he doesn’t have much wear and tear on him, 324 total touches in 3 years in the rushing, receiving and return game, so he will take some pressure off the solid but constantly banged up stable that Seattle already has. With Seattle having a solid group already including Chris Carson, Rashaad Penny, Carlos Hyde, and Dallas’ former Miami running mate Travis Homer, I see Dallas primarily as a return guy in his rookie season.
Eno Benjamin – Arizona Cardinals
Eno Benjamin has some solid talent and I think he will be a solid asset for the Cardinals in comparison to where they got him in the draft. I think Benjamin fell to the 7th round because he is a tad bit undersized for an NFL back (5’9”, 207lbs) and he did have a high work rate at ASU over his three years there (658 total touches on offense). Like Dallas who we mentioned above, the two time first team all-Pac-12 running back wont be asked to carry the work load in Kliff Kingsbury’s offense right away, but rather he will just be an extra weapon if they need some fresh legs. I see him coming into the season as the third running back on the roster, behind Kenyan Drake and Chase Edmonds and ahead of DJ Foster, however if Drake’s injury issues continue, Benjamin may find himself as the starting back as I see Edmonds as more of a 3rd down guy. He also showed a bit of value in the receiving game with the Sun Devils, which will help him get more playing time in Kingsbury’s Air Raid offense.
Salvon Ahmed/JaMycal Hasty – San Francisco 49ers
I wanted to group Ahmed and Hasty together as they were both UDFA signings by the 49ers this past April, and the 49ers didnt draft and Running backs this year. I think only one of these guys will actually make the team as they already have a crowded running backs room, even with the loss of Matt Bredia to free agency. I personally like Ahmed more, because I’ve seen him play more than I have Hasty, but I think if he is going to make the team he will need to show improvements in his ability to read blocks and find holes, However, Ahmed is an asset as he is a burner and has the ability to break any play for a long gain. Hasty on the other hand reminds me of 49ers teammate Jerick McKinnon, a smaller shiftier back who is an asset in the passing game. There is a possibility that both will make the team seeings how much the 49ers love to run the ball, but either way they will both will get minimal carries in their rookie season as they are stuck behind Raheem Mostert, Jerick McKinnon, and Tevin Coleman. A roster spot also needs to be factored in for the game’s best fullback Kyle Juszczyk, which will make it harder to keep both of these UDFAs. In my opinion the one roster spot will come down to who has a better preseason in the coming months.