THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — When running back Cam Akers suffered a season-ending Achilles injury before the start of training camp, it served a devastating blow to the Los Angeles Rams and their revamped offense, led by newly acquired quarterback Matthew Stafford.
But the timing of Akers’ injury gave the Rams ample opportunity to formulate a contingency plan.
The Rams moved Darrell Henderson Jr. into the starting role and with more than seven weeks until the season opener, had time to determine if some of their young talent — second-year pro Xavier Jones and rookie seventh-round pick Jake Funk — could quickly develop into larger roles.
But following nearly four weeks of practices, two preseason games and with the season opener against the Chicago Bears on Sept. 12 inching closer, it became increasingly apparent that the Rams needed to look outside their facility for reinforcements in order to maintain Super Bowl aspirations.
Now they’re hoping fourth-year running back Sony Michel is the key to electrifying a quiet backfield.
“We’re definitely jacked about where we’re at as a roster,” Rams general manager Les Snead said Wednesday after trading a 2022 sixth-round pick and a 2023 fourth-round pick to the New England Patriots in exchange for Michel.
A first-round pick (No. 31 overall) by the Patriots in 2018, Michel comes at a relatively low cost and should provide the burst out of the backfield that the Rams have lacked as they’ve installed their playbook around Stafford.
“What he does bring is this element of make a cut, get north and south and get north and south with some force,” Snead said. “The physics that he brings to the table — let’s call it a flavor or genre that we felt like complemented our group.”
Michel is playing out the final season of his rookie deal after the Patriots declined to pick up his rookie option. He’s scheduled to make $1.79 million.
In 28 starts over the past three seasons, Michel has rushed for 2,292 yards and 14 touchdowns.
It’s unclear what the workload split will be between Henderson and Michel or if Michel could eventually take over the starting role from Henderson, who was selected in the third round of the 2019 draft as a change-of-pace back.
The 5-foot-8, 208-pound Henderson and 5-11, 215-pound Michel have contrasting running styles, as Henderson often bounces outside the tackles, while Michel runs downhill.
Matthew Berry analyzes Darrell Henderson Jr.’s fantasy projections after the Rams traded for Sony Michel.
Rams coach Sean McVay has emphasized his confidence in Henderson’s skill set and ability to be a three-down back, but has also cautioned about the need for a measured approach to deploying Henderson because of health concerns.
“There isn’t anything that we don’t feel like Darrell is capable of doing from a skill set,” McVay said during training camp. “It’s just really figuring out that sweet spot in terms of what is the right amount of snaps to give him to keep him fresh throughout the course of a 17-game season and hopefully more after that.”
Henderson is currently dealing with a mild thumb sprain that has caused him to wear a cast or brace on his left hand. And over the past two years, he has had various injuries that have sporadically sidelined him and ended each season prematurely after he was placed on injured reserve in Week 16 in 2019 and 2020 with ankle injuries. Both injuries required offseason surgery.
In 28 career games, including 11 starts, Henderson has rushed for 771 yards and five touchdowns and also has caught 20 passes for 196 yards and a touchdown.
Though he has earned praise from coaches and has proven healthy throughout Patriots’ training camp, Michel — a member of the Super Bowl LIII champion Patriots who defeated the Rams, comes with some injury concerns of his own.
Last season, Michel was placed on injured reserve after Week 3 because of a quadriceps injury and missed six games. He also battled knee issues coming out of Georgia that lingered into the NFL.
However, with the Rams eyeing a deep playoff run, any injury concern that might accompany Michel is a gamble worth taking in order to gain experience, explosiveness and depth in the backfield.
“We identified Sony for many reasons,” Snead said. “Number one, being his experience — and experience, meaning like a player who has carried the ball in big games and in those big games, where there have been big moments, big drives, big series.”
The Rams hope Michel is the missing player to help carry them deep into February.