EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Although St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher ended whatever drama remained in the competition for the starting running back job Monday when he anointed Daryl Richardson, that doesn’t mean everything is settled at the position.
For most of training camp, all signs pointed to Richardson claiming the No. 1 job. Given that, it became clear that players once competing to win the top spot on the depth chart were actually competing to hang on to the No. 2 gig and players in the third position were closer to moving up to a backup role.
With two preseason games remaining, only the starting spot has crystallized while the rest of the running back depth chart remains a bit cloudy.
“As far as who’s going to come in, that remains to be seen,” Fisher said. “We still have some more evaluating to do.”
Having Richardson as the starter doesn’t necessarily mean he’s going to carry a heavy load on game day. The Rams and Fisher have been consistent in saying they want to use multiple backs. Richardson’s never carried more than 15 times in a game and it seems likely his workload probably won’t exceed that number by more than a few carries at any time.
All indications are that Isaiah Pead is the primary candidate to be Richardson’s main backup. Pead got plenty of opportunities in the second preseason game against Green Bay when he carried 11 times for 19 yards. His 14 carries are the most among Rams running backs in the preseason but he’s averaging just 2.6 yards per attempt, lowest among the backs legitimately in play to win the job.
Pead also fumbled in his first preseason carry against Cleveland but he’s at least shown some aptitude in other areas such as pass protection and pass-catching. He cleanly picked up at least two blitzes against the Packers.
Stacy and Ganaway have been slowed by injuries in the first two weeks of the preseason, making it more difficult to gauge where they are in their progression.
Against Cleveland in the opener, Stacy rushed seven times for 23 yards after missing most practices the week prior because of a leg issue. He practiced on and off again last week but was a pregame scratch against Green Bay. He did practice Monday afternoon.
Ganaway appeared to tweak a hamstring just before the Cleveland game and did not play against the Browns. He played against the Packers but did not get a carry. The Rams originally picked Ganaway up off waivers from the Jets in the final round of cuts last year and he still has yet to get an attempt in his time with the team.
The lack of sample size for Stacy and Ganaway has opened the door for Cunningham to make his mark and so far, he’s done nothing but help himself in his opportunities.
The Rams signed Cunningham as an undrafted free agent following the draft in April and thought enough of him that Fisher personally made the recruiting phone call to convince him to sign.
Through the first two games, Cunningham leads the team in rushing yards with 39 yards on 11 carries.
The rushing numbers aren’t the only thing being monitored, of course. Fisher said Monday that things like blitz pickup, catching passes and knowing assignments will be just as important in helping to sort out the rest of the running back depth chart.
“It’s consistency, and it’s not just the game,” Fisher said. “It’s consistency on the practice field, understanding, first and foremost, probably how to play without the football. For us, that’s more important than how he plays with the football. By that I mean, is he getting to the right place in the passing game? Is he proficient, and does he know exactly what to do in protection? Once you get that down, then we’ll evaluate the run skills.”
One other way for a backup running back to make his mark is on special teams, namely at kick returner. The Rams are likely to give rookie receiver Tavon Austin the first crack at being the punt returner but are more hesitant to turn over the kick return duties to their prized rookie.
That leaves a clear opening for someone to claim the kick return job and if that player happens to be a running back, all the better.
Pead has returned four kicks for 79 yards, an average of 19.75 yards per attempt. Cunningham’s sample size is much smaller but he had the longest return of any kick returner in the first two games with a 36-yard attempt in Cleveland.
"It’s a bonus," Fisher said. "It gives them an opportunity to be active, and that’s important. There’s plenty of spots open in our core group of special teams right now. If a running back wants to step in there and take one of those spots, that would be great.”