Rookie role analysis: Henderson could be a wild card for Rams offense

The Rams have been one of league’s top offensive teams since head coach Sean McVay arrived in 2017. But there’s one role Los Angeles hasn’t had in the first two years of McVay's tenure: a change-of-pace back.

As general manager Les Snead said on draft night, the Rams signed running back Lance Dunbar back in 2017 with the idea that he could play that position. But Dunbar’s knee wasn’t quite healthy enough for him to heavily contribute that year. Snead also mentioned the Rams had plans to draft a running back to fill this kind of role in 2018, but he was off the board before L.A. could pick him.

But now that we’ve reached 2019, enter running back Darrell Henderson — who seems to be exactly the big-play threat McVay and the rest of the club has been looking for.

OUTLOOK AT THE POSITION

Henderson seems like he’s going to be important as a running back, but both McVay and Snead have been clear throughout the offseason that Todd Gurley is still Los Angeles’ starting RB and the focal point of the offense.

Gurley leads the league with 40 total touchdowns over the last two seasons — he’s still the top dawg in L.A.

As a direct backup to Gurley, the Rams matched the Lions’ offer to restricted free agent Malcolm Brown, putting him under contract through 2020. In addition to rushing for 4.9 yards per carry on the few plays Gurley wasn’t in for the first 13 weeks of 2018 season, Brown was a heavy special teams contributor and should continue to be in 2019.

Los Angeles also has third-year RB Justin Davis and 2018 sixth-round pick John Kelly competing at the position. Both played significant special teams snaps when they were on the 46-man gameday roster last season.

POTENTIAL ROLE AS A ROOKIE

Henderson is a home-run hitter at running back — meaning any time he touches the ball, he could take it into the end zone. He averaged 8.9 yards per carry in both his sophomore and junior seasons at Memphis, and that’s despite taking 84 more carries in 2018 than he did in 2017.

“The way that you can attack people offensively and being able to add a playmaker like Darrell was something that — we’d identified him as a guy that has a specific skillset that really can do some unique things offensively,” McVay said on draft night.

The idea appears to be that Henderson can not only play out of the backfield, but also get split out wide to be a receiver. The running back recorded 63 receptions for 758 yards with eight touchdowns in his collegiate career.

Using Henderson as a receiver would give L.A. a different dimension to its offense, to be sure. But it would also likely increase the personnel groupings the club utilizes on a week-to-week basis.

Since about midway through the 2017 season, the Rams have been a team that’s operated nearly exclusively out of 11 personnel — one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers. The club did integrate more 12 personnel — one running back, two tight ends, two wideouts — into the offensive play calls toward the end of the 2018 season, but the club still primarily had one running back, one tight end, and three wideouts on the field for most plays. And that means L.A. was utilizing the vast majority of its offensive starters on nearly 100 percent of the unit’s snaps — a rarity in the NFL for skill players.

McVay said that’s an element Henderson can change.

“One of the things that we’ve talked about is being able to provide some different personnel groupings so that you still focus on making sure that Robert [Woods], Brandin [Cooks], Cooper [Kupp] and Josh [Reynolds] are big parts of our offense. But, you don’t want to ask them to play almost every single snap over the course of a 16-game season and then hopefully after that,” McVay said. “Being able to give somebody a chance to come in and provide a different threat is exactly what we identified. He was kind of one of those guys that stood out for us, so we’re excited about getting him here.”

The Los Angeles Rams select Memphis running back Darrell Henderson with the 70th pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.

WHAT ABOUT THE FUTURE?

With his explosive-play ability, Henderson certainly has a bright future in the NFL as he enters it — particularly in McVay’s offensive scheme. But when it comes to his career trajectory, that’s a bit difficult to say given his position and the fact that we haven’t seen him play yet.

Gurley is under contract through the 2023 season, and as long as he’s around, it’s fair to expect him to be the starting running back. But if Henderson can make a number of big plays that help L.A. put points on the board, he has a chance to become an integral part of the offense, too, and could see his role continue to expand.

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