The NFC might have some secret stars buried on the depth charts
Shortly after the news broke that Cam Akers would be out for the season with a torn Achilles, I posted a list of 16 running backs in the AFC who the LA Rams could consider as trade options. If not through trade, then perhaps the Rams will get the chance to review some of those backs as waiver wire pickups following final cuts.
Well, now I want to look at the NFC and prepare yourself: it’s a long list of “deep cuts” who probably won’t excite you. This truth emphasizes the fact that there are a lot of teams who are only one “Cam Akers injury away” from being in the same spot as the one facing this franchise.
We know that LA isn’t shy about making trades, but it could be slightly harder to make movements happen within the NFC, and especially the NFC West. However, cuts will be made and some of them will be surprising. The Rams have Darrell Henderson and a handful of unknowns behind him — and there still isn’t much we know about Henderson.
Even if Sean McVay says it isn’t imminent, I believe Los Angeles will add a running back relatively soon.
Jordan Howard, Eagles
A fifth round pick out of Indiana in 2016, Howard rushed for 1,313 yards as a rookie with the Chicago Bears. Then he had 1,122 yards and nine touchdowns in year two. Then 935 yards and nine touchdowns in year three.
By year four, Howard was playing for the Eagles and in year five — last season — he had 35 carries for 60 yards in time split between Philadelphia and Miami. So why would the Eagles give him up right after getting him back? New head coach Nick Sirianni already has Miles Sanders, Boston Scott, Kerryon Johnson, and fifth round pick Kenneth Gainwell. If the Eagles don’t keep five or six running backs, then one of those players will be available soon.
Peyton Barber, Washington
Washington signed veteran Lamar Miller in the offseason, so if he returns healthy and wins a job on the final 53-man roster, Barber could be left out. Washington has Antonio Gibson starting, J.D. McKissic as a complement, Miller as a veteran who can handle starting duties if needed, and then either Barber or Jonathan Williams, a former Bills, Saints, Colts, and Lions running back.
Barber had 234 carries with the Buccaneers in 2018, then 154 attempts in 2019, then 94 attempts in Washington last season. He only averaged 2.7 yards per carry in 2020.
Rico Dowdle, Cowboys
I want to choose one running back from every NFC team, but in Dallas, we know that Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard aren’t going anywhere. Digging deeper, I first hit Rico Dowdle, the favorite to be the number three back with the Cowboys this season, likely helping on special teams and waiting to see if Mike McCarthy will need someone to spell an injured player eventually.
— Dallas Cowboys (@dallascowboys) July 22, 2021
We shouldn’t have high expectations for Dowdle’s future as a running back, but he did have 428 carries for 2,167 yards over four seasons with South Carolina, averaging 5.1 yards per carry and catching 62 passes for 483 yards. The 6’, 215 lbs back could be a surprise addition to the waiver wire if an undrafted free agent rookie shows promise in camp — which is what Dowdle was a year ago.
Corey Clement, Giants
The Giants added a pair of veteran running backs as insurance behind a recovering Saquon Barkley — Clement and Devontae Booker — and they also drafted Gary Brightwell in the sixth round. If Joe Judge feels comfortable with Barkley, Elijhaa Penny, Booker, and Brightwell, then Clement could be the odd man out. Or Booker?
Clement had 314 carries for 1,375 yards and 15 touchdowns in his final season at Wisconsin, went undrafted, and he had 142 carries for 580 yards over his first two years in the NFL with the Eagles.
Rookie Corey Clement was different. pic.twitter.com/L6vKjfNiBG
— Victor Williams (@ThePhillyPod) February 5, 2021
He only had 21 carries for 75 yards with Philadelphia last season.
Khalil Herbert, Bears
I’m taking a chance here by including a rookie, but I’m thinking that Chicago will want to hang onto Damien Williams as a backup to David Montgomery, especially with Tarik Cohen recovering from a torn ACL. Herbert was a sixth round pick out of Virginia Tech and he rushed for 1,183 yards and eight touchdowns last season. Many sixth round picks don’t make final rosters and it could turn out that McVay’s “insurance policy” will be a rookie who didn’t make the cut somewhere else.
Alexander Mattison, Vikings
It would be considered a bigger swing than most of the names we’ve covered so far, but why not? Why not.
Mattison was a third round pick out of Boise State in 2019 and the Vikings are still going to keep all their chips with Dalvin Cook. Minnesota also re-signed Ameer Abdullah and drafted Kene Nwangwu, an exceptional athlete out of Iowa State. If Mattison is “stuck” behind Cook and the team gets really good feelings from Nwangwu in camp, could he be freed with an opportunity to start for the Rams? Mattison has 196 carries for 896 yards and three touchdowns over his first two NFL seasons.
Kene Nwangwu was drafted with pick 119 of round 4 in the 2021 draft class. He scored a 9.89 RAS out of a possible 10.00. This ranked 18 out of 1490 RB from 1987 to 2021. https://t.co/qZTLeexjXG #RAS #Vikings pic.twitter.com/qCcDZr5Xhf
— Kent Lee Platte (@MathBomb) May 1, 2021
Dexter Williams, Packers
No, it’s not A.J. Dillon. The Packers will almost certainly hold onto Dillon, a second round pick in 2020, even after giving a new contract to Aaron Jones. They also drafted Kylin Hill in the seventh round and that could be what puts Dexter Williams back out on the market.
A sixth round pick out of Notre Dame in 2019, Williams only has seven career carries in the NFL. But during his final college season, he had 995 yards and 12 touchdowns on 158 attempts.
Michael Warren, Lions
I have to go with a deep cut again, even if it is from the same Detroit team that has made two offseason trades with the Rams already. But I don’t think that Les Snead is going to have any conversations about D’Andre Swift or Jamaal Williams (a necessary handcuff to Swift), so I turn my focus to Warren.
He was able to handle a big workload in college at Cincinnati, carrying the ball 244 times as a sophomore and 261 times as a junior prior to entering the NFL draft in 2020. Warren averaged about 1,300 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns over those two NCAA seasons but is considered more of a boulder around the line of scrimmage than he is a rocket ship that can burst through holes in the defense. He went undrafted and is just looking to make a team right now.
The #Lions have signed free agent RB Michael Warren and waived RB Rakeem Boyd (via injury settlement).
— Detroit Lions (@Lions) June 4, 2021
Javian Hawkins, Falcons
Few teams have less depth at running back than Atlanta, so I think I have to reach all the way down to Hawkins, an undrafted free agent rookie out of Louisville who at least I’ve heard something about. The Falcons will be going with Mike Davis and former wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson as their top two backs, followed by Qadree Ollison. A fifth round pick in 2019, Ollison had two 1,100+ yard seasons at Pitt, so he could share stories with Aaron Donald, at least.
But I think Atlanta will hang onto Ollison, given that one of their top running backs is Cordarrelle Patterson.
Reggie Bonnafon, Panthers
Yeah, so, it appears that maybe the NFC doesn’t have a ton of viable backup options who LA could consider right now. I can’t guarantee which backs will hit the market after training camp but at the moment it appears as though the AFC might have the best choices when that does happen.
Carolina has a potential MVP with Christian McCaffrey — and then they have a lot of bodies. Trenton Cannon, Bonnafon, rookie Chuba Hubbard, Darius Clark, Mikey Daniel, Rodney Smith, and Spencer Brown.
Rushing touchdown by Reggie Bonnafon
Only 2 touches prior
Car 34- Jax 27 pic.twitter.com/nrwTwqJJfy
— Laurie Fitzpatrick (@LaurieFitzptrck) October 6, 2019
Bonnafon also went to Louisville and was Lamar Jackson’s right-hand back in 2017, preceding Hawkins by one year. The 6’, 225 lbs back only had 215 attempts in college and he’s spent the last two years with the Panthers, spending most of 2020 on the practice squad.
Tony Jones, Jr., Saints
Yes, another player who might not even make the final roster and who could just be competing for the practice squad. But again, it’s not going to be Alvin Kamara or Latavius Murray. I also don’t know that there’s any reason to be excited about the prospect of the Rams adding Dwayne Washington or Ty Montgomery. Neither of those players are likely to give LA something they need right now.
Jones was an undrafted free agent out of Notre Dame in 2020, actually pairing with Dexter Williams for several seasons. He averaged 6.0 yards per carry in 2019 and spent 2020 on the New Orleans practice squad. Last season, LA added Raymond Calais just before the season.
— Joe Horns Cell Phone (@JoeHornsPhone) January 2, 2021
Most of these moves would be similar to that one and wouldn’t represent the team attempting to replace Akers. But this has to be a realistic look at the Rams’ current options and what we are seeing is that they might not have many in the NFC.
Ke’Shawn Vaughn, Buccaneers
Now this one could be realistic and interesting.
Head coach Bruce Arians was not happy that the 2020 third round pick decided to skip voluntary OTAs back in June. Tampa Bay re-signed Leonard Fournette and added Giovani Bernard, giving them three backs — along with Ronald Jones II — capable of starting next to Tom Brady.
Even more, C.J. Prosise and Troymaine Pope have been in the league for years and would also be able to contribute on special teams.
KeShawn Vaughn, Vanderbilt. Remember the name pic.twitter.com/bHMnrJLjVD
— NCAAF 365 (@NCAAF_365) July 21, 2019
Vaughn had two highly productive seasons at Vanderbilt in 2018 and 2019 after transferring from Illinois, rushing for 2,272 yards and 21 touchdowns while also contributing in the passing game. The 5’10, 214 lb back was the 76th overall pick, going between Antonio Gibson and Zack Moss among running backs in the class.
If he’s on the outside looking in with Tampa Bay — possible but not likely — he could be one of the top young players who hits the trade market next month.
Rashaad Penny, Seahawks
Teams are often roundly criticized for drafting running backs in the first round, and such was the case when Seattle chose Penny with the 27th overall pick in 2018. In the three seasons since, people who rooted against the likes of Penny, Sony Michel, and Saquon Barkley only seem to feel vindicated by those efforts.
After rushing for 2,248 yards and 23 touchdowns in 13 games with San Diego State in 2017, Penny went to the Seahawks as an heir apparent to Marshawn Lynch. But he was stuck behind Chris Carson as a rookie, then dealt with injuries and missed six games in year two, and finally missed all but three games in 2020 as he was recovering from a torn ACL.
The Seahawks might like Travis Homer, DeeJay Dallas, and Alex Collins as backups to Carson, and Pete Carroll is rarely shy about parting ways with draft disappointments. I don’t think Seattle would trade Penny to the Rams — and if he gets released, he will most likely get picked up on waivers by a team with a higher priority than LA — but I had to mention someone on all 15 teams.
We also see players rotate teams within the division ALL THE TIME — so seeing any of these players reach LA isn’t that crazy of an idea. Penny is still only 25.
JaMycal Hasty, 49ers
Not Raheem Mostert, not third round pick Trey Sermon, not Wayne Gallman because they just added him and then Jeffrey Wilson tore his meniscus, not Jeffrey Wilson, and perhaps not sixth round pick Elijah Mitchell. Instead I turn to Hasty, an undrafted free agent out of Baylor in 2020 who surprisingly had 39 carries for 148 yards in limited action last season.
Probably not him either though.
— Danny Kelly (@DannyBKelly) January 22, 2020
Eno Benjamin, Cardinals
Arizona appears to be splitting their backfield between free agent James Conner and incumbent Chase Edmonds. This won’t be a team that features any backs outside of those two and will of course rely on the arms and legs of Kyler Murray above anyone else. Jonathan Ward is one such backup and perhaps Benjamin, a seventh rounder in 2020 out of Arizona State, will be the one left available.
Benjamin had 1,642 yards and 16 touchdowns as a sophomore in 2018, then 1,083 yards and 10 touchdowns as a junior. He has decent size and athleticism, but again, is an example of how slim the pickings are going to be in the NFC — barring more surprises.