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The Great Debate: Cam Akers (2021 Fantasy Football)

Jul 16, 2021
Cam Akers

Fantasy football draft season is officially here, and the time has come to refine your stance on players. What better way to do that than a good, old-fashioned debate! We’re rolling out our debate series where one writer higher on a given player will take on another that’s lower than our expert consensus rankings.

Up next, we have Aaron Pags and Jason Kamlowsky debating Los Angeles Rams running back Cam Akers.

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The Debate

Cam Akers’ average draft position is 16.3, as RB11 in Half-PPR formats. I am not far off in my rankings at RB9, 11th overall. Although, where we differ is here: Akers is a sure-fire first-round choice for me in 12-team leagues. Yet, he doesn’t have to be your first pick if your league is going to allow you to select the sophomore back in the mid to late second round — smash that value.

Akers has fantasy league-winning potential. But, to be fair, any Sean McVay lead running back does. Since taking over as offensive coordinator in Washington in 2014, McVay has been the OC or Head Coach of a Top 10 scoring offense on the ground all but one time. His rushers have collectively finished in the Top 6 in rushing TDs in five of those seven seasons. Moreover, McVay prefers to give his RB starter the ball early and often. Starting at running back for the Rams since 2017 has meant an average of 284 touches per season! 18 per game: that’s a lot of volume.

How many running backs have collected 284 or more touches in a season since 2018 and not finished as a Top 10 fantasy scorer? Three. With only Le’Veon Bell in 2019 not completing a Top 12 Half-PPR campaign. Is Cam Akers the RB in line to receive that work in 2021? Jourdan Rodrigue of The Athletic recently wrote a Los Angeles Rams Preview in which she quoted Sean McVay on Cam Akers’ role heading into 2021. “I think he can continue to play at a high level. Really, I think he is an every-down back. I think he’s a special player,” said the L.A. Head Coach. Hmm, I can draft the every-down back in a McVay-led offense in the middle of Round 2? Yep, I will sign for this.

Aaron lays out a compelling argument for Akers. To be fair, there are a lot of markers that point to him taking a step forward this year. However, drafting him in the first two rounds of a draft means you are putting a lot of stock in a five-game sample to end last season. It also means taking him at his ceiling which is a flawed way of constructing your roster.

So why am I lower than Pags and the consensus on Akers? Let’s start with the presence of Darrell Henderson, who actually outgained Akers last season and had a better yards per carry average. A lot of people remember Akers’ performance against Seattle as a coming out party of sorts. What most people forget is that Henderson was placed on Injured Reserve and was unavailable. That left Akers with virtually no competition for touches in a game where he had to shoulder most of the offensive load because the Rams were severely limited at quarterback.

Henderson is also a fine pass catcher out of the backfield so he may relegate Akers to being a two-down back in even the best-case scenario. At worst, it is a pure committee with both backs being usable flex options but that would leave Akers as one of the worst values on the board on draft day.

There is also the fact that Matt Stafford is now the Rams’ quarterback. While McVay may believe Akers is a special player, he has practically fallen over himself simply at thinking about the idea of Stafford running the show. With Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp, and Tyler Higbee joining the newly acquired DeSean Jackson and TuTue Atwell, we could see the Rams pass-game volume make a major spike. If Stafford approaches Goff’s 2019 numbers for attempts, that won’t leave much meat on the offensive bone for Akers to accumulate touches – especially in a potential shared backfield situation. I would much rather take Joe Mixon or Najee Harris in that same range or a slight discount.

Many fantasy analysts share Jason’s concerns about Henderson cutting into Akers’ work. Indeed, the former did well as the starter for McVay and company — Jason and I would likely be RB3s in this system! However, the prevailing thought that Cam Akers won his chance at a breakout via Darrell Henderson’s Week 16 ankle injury is a tad misleading.

Both Akers (the rookie) and Henderson (the incumbent) were healthy coming into Week 1 of the 2020 season. So, with all things equal, it was Cam Akers who out-touched his backfield mate 15 to 3 in the team’s opener versus Dallas. While neither helped your fantasy team that week, the writing was on the wall that McVay was going to trust Cam over Darrell. Then, in Week 2, Akers’ chest injury opened the door for Henderson to grab the lead dog role. Did DH do enough while Akers was sidelined? It’s hard to tell, but we can compare the few games in which the backfield seemed shared. All in all, the two RBs were healthy together for the great majority (minimal in-game injuries) of seven games in 2020. How did they fare when competing against the same defenses in those seven contests? Akers outscored Henderson in five of seven, 73.8 to 49.4. To be the man, you have got to beat the man.

Additionally, I am glad Jason pointed out the move at quarterback for Los Angeles. Matthew Stafford is a noticeable upgrade over Jared Goff. Though, perhaps not as clear is the bump Akers will see in the passing game in 2021 with Stafford under center, the same bump Jason believes will go to the WRs. I have a different take on those added throws.

In 2020, Goff targeted Rams RBs just 71 times, third-worst in the entire NFL, while Stafford looked his running backs’ way 19% of the time (better than a majority of NFL QBs). D’Andre Swift, the Lions’ lead-back in 2020, showed out as part of the air attack notching 43% (72 pts) of his total Half-PPR format points on passing plays. In contrast, with Goff at the helm, Akers (24% of pts) and Henderson (25% of pts) summed only 54 points combined through the air! So it appears to me, there will be more receiving opportunities for the second-year stud from Florida State. Where, over his final 11 career NCAA games, he put on display his catching abilities by hauling in four receiving TDs.

I think an important variable to consider here is the sentence, “Neither helped your fantasy team.” That is precisely my concern with taking Akers as an RB1. When we look at him in the context of those running backs who are going in the top-12, Akers has one of the least clear paths to 20+ touches per week.

But perhaps the biggest indictment of Akers going in the top-12 of running backs is that he never did clearly distance himself from Henderson. Sure, he had blowup games against New England in Week 14 and the Wild Card game in Seattle but from an efficiency perspective, he was pretty pedestrian last year. Through Akers’ first seven games last season he had 62 touches for 312 yards and just one touchdown. He had six games where he averaged less than four yards per carry as well. Not exactly stud running back production and certainly not enough to give me confidence he can shoulder the load for a full season.

Of course, none of that takes into account his injury history. The ankle sprain he suffered last year isn’t all too uncommon for a running back but he also worked his way through a similar injury in 2018. The rib injury in Week 2 against Philadelphia can either be chalked up to a fluke or something more but the question remains: Can he hold up over 16 games? Will the Rams risk running him into the ground like they did Todd Gurley? I am betting if they had it to do over again, they may have played that differently as Gurley went downhill quickly after racking up a monster amount of touches.

All that said, this may ultimately come down to whether or not the Rams trust Akers to play on passing downs and near the goal line. Akers was the worst pass protector of any Rams running back last year by a wide margin and was one of the worst in the league.. Do we really believe McVay is going to allow Akers to be a three-down back if he is responsible for Stafford getting hit every time he’s out there? No chance. In fact, Henderson graded out well comparatively and this furthers the case for him to be in the game on passing downs which reduces Akers to an early down role. That could work if he gets Red Zone touches but he didn’t rack up touchdowns last year either and he had a big fumble down at the goal line in a Week 17 game against the Cardinals. While that was his only turnover last season, Akers had fumbling issues in college (10 in his career at Florida State) so there could be concern there too.

The red flags are starting to pile up on Akers being able to return value on his 2nd Round (or, in Pags case, 1st Round) price tag. I’d urge caution and look at more proven commodities.

In the spirit of this great debate, I offer complete transparency. Jason is spot on with his observations of Cam Akers’ first seven NFL games. In fact, it wasn’t easy to continue to roster the rookie as you twisted and turned through 2020. But, great things come to those who wait. And, what was a true “committee” led by Henderson through Week 11 shifted on a dime in Week 12.

At home against the 49ers in Week 12, Cam Akers’ snap percentage went to the moon, as the kids say. Previously, he had been on the field only 28% or less of the time in every game except for Week 1 (33%). Now, McVay was leaning on his big-talent rookie, running him out there 61, 63, 66. and 71 percent of snaps over Cam’s final four regular-season contests. So, while Jason and others are right to be critical of the short sample of production, they do not tie the uptick in production to the increased confidence from his Head Coach, a subsequent shift away from the committee before Henderson’s injury, nor the higher level of stakes for the Rams. All building on each other, hinting at what would be.

This brings us to the elephant in the room, the 2020 NFL Playoffs. After capping off the regular season with 86 carries and 340 yards rushing (4.0 YPC clip), Cam Akers went nuclear for his coach and team when it mattered most. On the road at Seattle and Green Bay, Akers amassed 46 carries, 221 yards, 4.8 YPC, 51 yards receiving, two rushing TDs, 2 receiving TDs, and a 2-point conversion for good measure. Of course, it didn’t count for your fantasy team, but you can bet it left a sweet taste in Sean McVay’s mouth this offseason. A taste that brings us all those glowing compliments and eventually a focal point for Los Angeles’ 2021 success.

Lastly, red flags come in all shapes and sizes for the 2021 first-round RBs. Whether it is McCaffrey and Barkley’s off season-ending injuries, Kamara losing Brees, Dillon’s draft capital pressing on Aaron Jones, Hunt’s effect on Chubb’s upside, or Henry and Elliot’s extreme career workloads. 2021 may be the last time you get a chance to draft Cam Akers outside of the Top 5 overall. You don’t want to miss out on it.

The Analysts

The end to the 2020 season is weighing heavily on Akers’ draft position, as we saw Sean McVay trust him with a workhorse role to end the year. Akers wasn’t overly efficient with the massive touch totals he received (Darrell Henderson was actually more productive on a per-touch basis), but we can’t ignore a running back who is projected to get 18-plus touches in Sean McVay’s offense, which is likely to be better than ever with Matthew Stafford under center. There’s always the chance McVay keeps this as a timeshare with both Akers and Henderson healthy, but Akers is the one who was trusted down the stretch, including the playoffs. There’s top-five upside with Akers, but there’s also a bit of risk given his small sample size of a big workload and potential timeshare.
– Mike Tagliere

Is Akers a very talented and dynamic RB? Yes. Is he going to see 29 carries in a game like he did at one point last year? Almost certainly not. With the expansion to a 17-game season, I believe we’re going to see more and more NFL coaches look to involve multiple RBs in their game plan to avoid players wearing down. From Sean McVay’s perspective, he’s going to be thinking about how he needs Akers to be fresh for their deep playoff run and loading him up with touches like he did towards the end of last season isn’t going to be sustainable for an entire season. Darrell Henderson is going to be involved in this offense enough to take some pressure off of Akers, which negatively impacts his fantasy value. I love Akers as a mid-range RB2 this year with incredible upside, but it’s tough to logically get to the place that I feel comfortable putting him inside my top-10. If he ends up being drafted around that range, I’m not going to have many shares of Akers in 2021. My Very Early Projection: 271-1057-10 rushing & 29-297-2 receiving.
– Kyle Yates

The Public

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