After five seasons lurking in the shadow of Todd Gurley, Los Angeles Rams running back Malcolm Brown has finally emerged. Or has he? For five years, Brown had to take a backseat to Gurley, the 2017 AP Offensive Player of the Year and the No. 5 player in the league last season, according to his peers in the annual NFL Top 100.
When the Rams and Gurley parted ways earlier this year, Brown, who rushed for 255 yards last season, looked like he was going to be the Alpha in the Rams backfield. The Rams then went out and drafted Florida State running back Cam Akers in the 2020 NFL Draft in April to add some depth in the backfield. Akers was picked in the second round by the Rams.
This scenario presents head coach Sean McVay with an interesting dilemma of having either a running back-by-committee plan or to allow one guy to beat out the other for the starting job. Brown sees this year’s training camp as a chance to expand his role on the team.
“It’s definitely important to me,” Brown said. “I tell guys all the time I take pride in my consistency and being able to stay into this league for this long. I’m proud of it. They make jokes and stuff all the time. I take pride in it. To be able to possibly fall into a bigger role, it’s a blessing just because I’ve stayed in for so long, I’m falling into this spot. It’s great for me. I love it. I’m just going to keep this thing moving and keep doing what I’ve been doing for this long and do it even better.”
In his five seasons with the Rams, Brown has never carried the ball more than 69 times in one year (2019), and just once has he been able to play in all 16 games (2016). But while he was patiently playing second-fiddle to Gurley, Brown said he tried to absorb as much as he could in his backup role.
“It’s just a mindset,” Brown said. “I feel like a lot of guys get caught up in wanting to be the man immediately. But, it’s a grind. I knew what was coming from the jump. I’m undrafted. The running back class I came in with was crazy. I knew what it was from the jump. I knew that I had to focus in on playing my role. I think that’s the biggest thing, you have a role when you get into this league. You can’t just hop in and be the man all the time. So, I hoped in my role. I played special teams. Did my thing there. I just made sure I was always in my playbook and if they ever asked me a question or if I was ever on that field, I knew exactly what to do.”
Now that he is the elder statesman in the Rams running back room, Brown is now being counted on to provide leadership to younger players like Akers.
“I learned a lot from him, whether that’s from the pass game or the run game.,” said Akers. “Just showing me how to slow it down a little bit and take my time. Also helping me understand that the game is faster and that it is sped up. So, you have to be able to think on the fly and move on the fly.”
Think and move on the fly is probably what Akers does best since he is often compared to the explosiveness of Gurley.
“Just being a dog,” said Akers. “I had a few conversations with (Falcons RB) Todd (Gurley II). Just knowing how he thinks mentally when he is running the ball and how he prepares. I just would like to take a lot from that, I don’t think I’m at the level he’s at yet, but I’m trying to get there. I want to be there and I’m working to get there. So, whether that’s talking to him, asking him things that he did while he was here. Just trying to take in and soak in as much information as I can.”
Being versatile is a mandate in today’s NFL as a running back. Besides running the football well, it is advantageous for a ballclub to have a running back that can also catch the ball and zip down the field in a blink. Both Brown and Akers fit the description pretty well. With that in mind, Akers, who rushed for 2,875 yards in three seasons at Florida State, several notable names during a recent Zoom conference call that he lists as hits top runners in the NFL.
“I would say (Cowboys RB) Zeke (Elliott), (Vikings RB) Dalvin (Cook), and (Saints RB) Alvin Kamara,” Akers said. “All of those guys, I just feel like they all have the full package. Of course, also Todd Gurley, who we all just mentioned. I just like to watch full package guys. Guys who can do it all and guys who aren’t one dimensional. Guys who can block, catch and run. So, you know, that’s the type of game I want to have.”
Block, catch and run is what all the Rams running backs are able to do, Brown said.
“Well, in this running back room everybody can really do everything,” said Brown. “I may have mistakenly said that, but do everything. I just know RB Darrell (Henderson) has a lot of speed. RB Cam (Akers) is a guy with a lot of speed and can get on the edges and do their thing. I’m a downhill guy, but like I said, Coach McVay, he’ll have me doing the same thing Darrell is doing and Darrell’s doing the same thing as I’m doing. We’re all playing a part in doing what we can to contribute.”
Now in his sixth season in the league, Brown has never rushed the ball for more than the 255 yards that he gained in 2019. His numbers are not going to catch your eyes or blow you away. In 2018, Brown rushed the ball 43 times for 212 yards. In 2017, he gained 246 yards on 63 carries. His first to years in the NFL were basically scratch off seasons for Brown as he totaled just 56 yards on 22 carries.
But sometimes potential is not in the numbers but rather in the details. Brown, who is in a contract year, scored for five touchdowns last season and is a strong, downhill runner who is hard to stop once he gets enough momentum. Asked if there was a particular personal goal he is hoping to achieve this season, Brown said the main thing was to insert himself more as a leader.
“I guess I really haven’t made a specific goal like that,” Brown said. “More so, my goal was to be just very detailed and intentional with everything I do. Just the small parts of being a pro. Like I said a little earlier, going into year six, bringing these guys along, more so, my goal was to carry a different type of leadership role in that running back room, just knowing that I would probably be that guy that these guys are looking at and getting an example off of. So, my goal was to just take on that role and make sure I do a good job of it, so when whoever’s in the game, they know exactly what they’re doing. They’re feeding off the consistency that I take pride in and that they are going out there and doing the same exact things. I think the type of goal I had in mind was to take on that leadership role in that running back room.”
Moving into that leadership role has already paid dividends for Brown. Akers is paying attention to what the veteran running says and does in the sense that he has adopted the mindset to be a team player.
“I just want to do whatever I can to help the team,” said Akers. “Whatever Coach (Sean) McVay thinks is the best option for the team, that’s what we are going to roll with and we are going to do to it 100 miles per hour.”
Editor’s note: Feature photo of Malcolm Brown appears courtesy of George Laase