Each weekday from now until Rams rookies report to training camp on July 21st, we’ll be profiling a Rams position group. Today we look at the running backs.
Despite the fact that running back Zac Stacy had a great season in 2013 and was one of the more successful rookies in the NFL, the Rams’ starting running back position is by no means guaranteed to him in 2014. The Rams drafted Auburn running back and 2013 Heisman Trophy finalist Tre Mason with their third-round pick, and the team is publicly stating that there will be a competition among the two during training camp.
Stacy, a 2013 fifth-rounder out of Vanderbilt, might be hard to unseat. After getting off to a slow start in training camp last year, he wasn’t really a part of the Rams’ offense at the start of the season. But after being appointed as the starter in Week 5, Stacy started quickly and rarely slowed down, finishing with 250 rushing attempts for 973 yards and seven touchdowns. He became the catalyst of the Rams’ offense, and he was a large part of the reason that they were able to go 7-9 (6-6 in games he started) despite dealing with an underperforming defensive backfield, a regressing receiving corps, and a season-ending injury to quarterback Sam Bradford.
There were some concerns about Stacy’s durability, however. After being banged up in training camp, Stacy also suffered injuries in the Rams’ games against the Seattle Seahawks and Chicago Bears that took him off the field in key situations. Luckily, reserve backs Daryl Richardson and Benny Cunningham were able to perform well in his absence, but they became risky issues nonetheless.
To help prevent against those types of issues in 2014, the Rams brought in Mason, who is sized almost identically to Stacy and possesses a similar tough-nosed skill set. Mason is a bit faster on the outside and could be turned to in situations where the Rams feel they need a game breaker. You also have to wonder, though, with Mason being selected rather high and having had such a great college track record, if he’s being prepared to take the starting role from Stacy. After all, it wouldn’t have made much sense for them to take Mason a whole two rounds earlier than they had taken Stacy the year before if they didn’t believe there was at least a chance of him assuming the starting position at some point or another.
It’s certainly possible that the Rams could sufficiently work both backs into the offense. Head coach Jeff Fisher famously ran a “fire and lightning” two-back system with the Tennessee Titans in 2008 that featured quick-and-elusive Chris Johnson and big-and-powerful LenDale White. Since coming to the Rams, however, Fisher hasn’t divided up the carries as equally. Steven Jackson got over 63 percent of the Rams’ total carries in 2012. In 2013, Stacy received roughly 71 percent of the Rams’ rushing attempts once he took over as the starter in Week 5. With Stacy and Mason possessing such similar styles, it should be interesting to see if the Rams find it practical to simply rotate them in-and-out in each game, or if they ride the hot hand and consistently give one back a much greater role than the other.
The Rams’ remaining backs beyond Stacy and Mason will have to prove themselves useful on special teams, as recent trends indicate that they’ll receive very little action from scrimmage unless they work themselves into the top two. On only two occasions during the Fisher Rams era have the Rams given meaningful carries to three running backs in a game: during the Week 5 transition from Richardson to Stacy against the Jaguars in 2013, and during the following game against the Houston Texans. In those contests, Stacy, Cunningham, and Richardson were all utilized, but Richardson was subsequently phased out of the offense, only to briefly return as Cunningham nursed a midseason injury.
Though he had an impressive rookie season after signing as an undrafted free agent, racking up 47 rushing attempts for 261 yards and a touchdown, Cunningham will have to prove himself on coverage teams and perhaps kick returns to guarantee himself a spot on this year’s roster. So long as he’s a serviceable special teamer, he’ll be nice insurance for Stacy and Mason in the backfield should either of them get hurt or perform poorly.
Like Cunningham, former second-rounder Isaiah Pead will have to carve out a role as a special-teamer, but special teams coach John Fassel singled him out during OTAs as one of the team’s most improved players and said he expected him to be one of the key players on the Rams’ specialty units this season. Though there were some doubts about his future after the Rams took Mason, Pead’s spot on the roster now seems relatively secure, and he could even get some action from scrimmage because of his solid receiving ability out of the backfield.
Special teams ace Chase Reynolds may be on the outside looking in after sticking on the Rams’ active roster for the first time last season. Reynolds, who formerly spent two full years on the practice squad, contributed heavily to all the Rams’ special teams units, but he didn’t see any action from scrimmage, and if the Rams don’t feel that he has any potential to be a contributor on offense, he may be a victim of the numbers game.
Undrafted rookies Trey Watts and Kadeem Jones will also battle to make the roster during camp. Watts, who played at Tulsa and has a build similar to Stacy, Mason, and Cunningham, might be a practice squad candidate, but he seems unlikely to have a chance of making the 53-man roster barring any unforeseen developments. Jones, a Western Kentucky alum, is a pure fullback, and it’s possible that he could contend for a spot because he’s the only player on the roster to possess that quality. However, the Rams have played without a real fullback for much of the past two years and seem to be content with tight end Cory Harkey as their primary lead blocker. Jones will really have to establish himself as an impact blocker also capable of contributing on special teams if he wants to make any sort of run at the regular season roster.