Its been a tumultuous half decade for football in the city of St Louis. After enjoying one of the most potent and exciting offenses in football for roughly eight seasons between 1999 and 2006, the Rams have struggled mightily to put points on the scoreboard, in fact their ranking of 25th in the league in that category in 2012 was the highest ranking for the lowly Rams in the six years since. While it was a step in the right direction, by no means was there a great deal of excitement about the Rams having their most potent offensive attack in over half a decade. However, during this period shoddy offense, the one constant has been the running back position where 2004 first round draft pick Steven Jackson has provided the only glimpse of excellence. As bad as it got everywhere else, the Rams at least had a consistent workhorse in the backfield, no matter how much uncertainty surrounded other positions, the one constant was their 6'3 229 lbs workhorse in the backfield. Jackson provided a near seamless transition when he took over the full time duties from Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk in 2006, rushing for over 1,000 yards every season since Faulks retirement, an 8 year run that is currently unmatched in the NFL among active runners. Since Faulk's acquisition in 1999 the Rams have had a quality 1,000 yard caliber running back every season, a bell-cow to turn to and rely upon on a weekly basis to move the football on the ground even when all else has failed.
Times are changing however when it comes to football in St Louis, and while that sentence is music to Rams fans ears just about everywhere else on the football field, one spot where it may an area of concern is the running back position. For the first time since the turn of the century, there's very real uncertainty in regards to who will be the top back for the Rams come opening weekend, and if in fact the team currently has a running back on the roster worthy of such a title. Steven Jackson has moved on to greener and more winning pastures in Atlanta, leaving his residence in the St Louis Rams backfield up for rent for the first time in eight seasons. The candidates applying for occupancy are Daryl Richardson, who served as Jackson's primary backup after being drafted in the seventh round of the 2012 draft, Isaiah Pead, the man who was supposed to fill that role after being drafted five rounds earlier in that same 2012 draft, and rookie Zac Stacy out of Vanderbilt, who the team made their 6th round selection this past April. There's also a dark-horse candidate by the name of Benny Cunningham who the team signed as an undrafted rookie out of Middle Tennessee State. Cunningham got off to a torrid start in 2012 before suffering a season ending knee injury in late October. While Cunningham is a very gifted young man, and probably would have been drafted in the middle rounds had it not been for the injury, it says quite a bit about your backfield situation when a rookie drafted in the sixth round and an undrafted rookie coming off a major knee operation are considered legitimate candidates to run out of the tunnel as your opening day starter.
While Cunningham is most definitely the long-shot of the four to win the job, if not a long-shot to make the 53 man roster, Stacy is considered by some to be the favorite. At 5'9 216 lbs, Stacy is the only one of the three main candidates with the size and frame to be a three down NFL running back. He's a rugged inside runner with a powerful, compact muscular build similar to Ravens star Ray Rice. With the high round investments the Rams have made in their passing game the past four years, including making quarterback Sam Bradford the number one overall pick back in 2010 and making lightning fast receiver Tavon Austin the eighth overall pick this past April, it seems clear the team is looking to build their offense around a pass first philosophy featuring receivers similar to those used in the days of the "Greatest Show on Turf" era at the turn of the century. In order for that type of scheme to work however, the team needs to compliment their strong armed passer and explosive receiving corps with a decisive north/south runner, a guy who plants his foot, lowers his shoulder and hit the hole hard, a guy who's consistently moving forward and who's feet are always churning before, during, and after contact. They also need a running back capable of being a threat catching the ball out of the backfield and making things happen after the catch. Finally, they need a a guy at running back who's not only capable but also willing to stand up to blitzing linebackers in pass protection, keeping their most valuable commodity, their quarterback upright and most importantly, healthy. Now while the Rams will likely choose to start the season by trying to re-create that type of player by using a committee approach to their backfield, the only running back on the roster who comes close to matching that description as an individual is the rookie Zac Stacy.
Stacy had a highly productive collegiate career, going up against the toughest competition college football has to offer in the SEC. He's considered a high character, mature individual who was a team leader at Vanderbilt and should have no problem adjusting to life in the NFL with his professional approach to the game. Daryl Richardson had some impressive moments in spot duty during his rookie season, flashing some big run ability and surprising power for a sub 200 pound back. Isaiah Pead is undoubtedly the quickest and fastest of the trio, he lacks physicality, but his athleticism give him the most big play potential of any back in camp. But it's Zac Stacy, despite the fact that he's a rookie, that's the most complete and NFL ready of all the back's currently on the Rams roster.
Stacy has the strength size and power to gain the tough yardage between the tackles, while also possessing deceptive speed illustrated by his 4.53 time in the forty yard dash. While that's more then a respectable 40 time for a 216 pound back, Stacy actually appears on film to have even better football speed. At Vanderbilt, he displayed the vision to recognize when to bounce plays to the outside and the speed and quickness to get there and turn the corner. While he wasn't asked to catch the football much out of the backfield, by all accounts he's a capable pass receiver with the tools to make things happen after the catch, particularly in the screen game where his vision and patience are a tremendous asset. Stacy is not only a patient runner, he's a decisive one as well Patience and decisiveness are two very important skills for a runner to have, but one without the other is next to useless. A great running back allows the play to develop and hits the hole without hesitation when it does, Stacy does this as well as any running back in the 2013 class, and better then any running back currently on the Rams roster. He rarely goes down on first contact, turning what could be perceived as a weakness.... his 5'9 height....into an asset by running with a strong low center of gravity, making him very difficult to knock off stride when his shoulders are squared, and very difficult to tackle because he's such a compact yet powerful target. When he does get stopped, its rarely for a loss as Stacy is constantly moving and falling forward picking up those oh so valuable two or three yards as he falls to the ground which are so often the difference between a 4th and short and a first down.
While some may think it's a bit much to expect an Alfred Morris like season statistically, Stacy has every bit as much natural talent as the Redskins running back if not more. The Rams will likely look to utilize all three running backs at the start of the season depending upon the situation, but I look for Stacy to distinguish himself among the three by season's end and for his snaps to increase as the season wears on.
The team knew they had a bit of a hole at running back when the draft got under way this past April, but they chose to focus on other areas of need, it's for this reason that getting a runner the caliber of Zac Stacy in the sixth round was akin to highway robbery for the St Louis Rams. The 2013 draft could go down in franchise history as one of the greatest in recent memory, and the catalyst for change in St Louis, particularly on the offensive side of the football. The team was able to get an electrifying play-making receiver like Tavon Austin, as well as his highly productive, sure-handed partner in crime at West Virginia, Stedman Bailey a couple of rounds later. Then they were able to steal one of the most complete and NFL ready linemen in recent memory, Barrett Jones out of Alabama, who can play any position along the offensive line and will likely be starting at left guard by season's end, if not the seasons beginning. And then, finally, there was Stacy. All eyes will be on the explosive first round receiver Tavon Austin when training camp gets underway, but don't be shocked if it's another Ram, namely Mr Stacy, who comes out of nowhere to earn Rookie of the Year honors in the NFC. Stacy was a second or third round talent that slipped to the sixth round for a variety of reasons that had little to do with him personally. The main one of those reasons was the devaluing of the running back position in today's NFL. Team's simply feel they can get more value out of the position using a back by committee approach, instead of investing big money on a "franchise" running back who may or may not pan out or last very long. Teams also feel they can get more long term value out of their high draft picks by using them on other positions that don't have quite the same high rate of turnover. This is understandable when you take into account that the average career length of an NFL running back, even a very good NFL running back is less then five seasons. It' doesn't seem to make a lot of sense to invest a high draft pick on a player who's career may be winding down just when the rest of his draft-mates at other positions are coming into their own at the professional level. It's for this reason, not to mention the overall depth at the running back position in the 2013 draft that led team's to hold off on the running back position until late causing a player like Stacy to slip to the sixth round despite his talent level.
These may be a understandable reasons to some, but don't tell that to Zac Stacy. Look for him to make the rest of the league pay for their oversight in 2013 and for a number of years to come. Stacy may have been the most undervalued player in the 2013 class, and he will likely begin to prove that on opening weekend in September when he's the starting running back in St Louis.
Fantasy owners, do yourself a favor, don't wait too long and miss the boat on this guy. Alfred Morris went unselected in most fantasy drafts a season ago, even when it became apparent that he would win the starting job for the Redskins in week one. Even the most cynical of fantasy players won't make that same mistake again. You'll likely get laughed at if you take Stacy in round 8 or 9, but secretly the smartest players in your league will be cursing you under their breath. The Rams will start out as a pass first offense with a back by committee approach, but history suggests that Jeff Fisher can't stray too far away from the run, and he prefers a number one guy to carry that load (Eddie George anybody??...How about Chris Johnson??).
By season's end, and probably sooner than later, there will be an undisputed number one running back in St Louis and his name will be Zac Stacy.
Writer's Note- While I am very high on Zac Stacy's NFL prospect's, don't forget the name Benny Cunningham. Cunningham, when healthy a season ago was one of the most impressive looking running backs in the country and at 5'10 210 he has the size and frame to be a three down running back. He likely won't receive the reps necessary to be a viable contender to win the number one job, but if he's healthy following last season's knee injury, and he's given a fair and legitimate opportunity, he could work his way into the backfield rotation, and if he's 100%, Cunningham has the talent to shock everyone and emerge as the number one guy.