2020 RSP Excerpt - Florida State Running Back Cam Akers

A deep look at 2020 draft running back Cam Akers, who shined despite toiling away in a subpar offense in 2019

The wide receiver class is the marquee position group in the 2020 NFL Draft, but this is also a rich year for the skill positions overall, especially the running backs. Footballguy’s Senior Staff Writer Matt Waldman authors the Rookie Scouting Portfolio, the most comprehensive look at skill positions available. This week, Matt shares his sample profile of Cam Akers, a runner whose immediate outlook is scheme-dependent due to his inexperience with zone blocking. However, if matched with a gap-heavy team like the Chargers, Colts, or Bills, Akers could have a strong rookie year.

For more profiles and in-depth analysis on the 150 other prospects in this class, download Matt Waldman’s 2020 Rookie Scouting Portfolio, now in its 15th year of publication.

Cam Akers, Florida State (5-10, 217)

Depth of Talent Score: 83.9 = Rotational Starter: Executes at a starter level in a role playing to their strengths.

A former high school quarterback and running back, Akers burst onto the scene as a freshman, but the struggles of the Florida State program and an ankle injury in 2018 hurt his chances of reaching his production ceiling. His talent and potential still burn bright as an NFL prospect.

I referred to Akers in an RSP Boiler Room video analysis of his game as an “Incomplete Masterpiece,” because this tackle-breaking, pass-receiving, safety-beating, nose tackle-blocking running back has a tantalizing game that’s built for a real workload if he can become scheme-versatile. Right now, Akers is a gap scheme runner in a league where zone blocking is the prevailing style of run game.

Zone running games require its backs to process multiple crease options as they take the exchange and approach the line of scrimmage. Runners must have the footwork to time the development of blocks and manipulate unblocked defenders in directions that will facilitate a bounce or cutback.

Good footwork in the zone running game requires a ingrained knowledge of steps to navigate traffic and set up opponents in the same way a boxer uses movement and punch combinations to set up his opponent. Like a fighter who wins as a brawler but not as a boxer, Akers is still leaning too much on raw athletic ability to avoid defenders and access secondary creases. This is not a career-killing flaw but the sooner Akers masters the multiple choices of zone running, the more likely he finds a long-term home as a starter.

Gap runs—power, toss, trap, and counter—require a style of play that is often the polar opposite of zone running. The offensive line is devoting all of its resources to open one crease in a gap scheme.

A gap scheme runner has to time the opening of that crease perfectly so he can reach the open field. Although there is some patience and manipulation required to set up a lead block, the running back isn’t pressing the line 2-3 gaps away from the crease he plans to attack. Instead, he’s making small adjustments with footwork and pacing to let the lead blocker reach his assignment and then hit the crease hard.

There are fewer cutback or bounce opportunities with gap running, which is why most gap teams value runners with the size, strength, and speed to charge through these spaces with an all-in mindset. Akers is that kind of back.

When he knows there’s only one choice, the same choice diagrammed in the meeting room, Akers thrives. He hits the open lanes with intensity, and he has the small amounts of pace variation, stride length adjustments, and limited lateral movement that are required to set up his lead blocker.

Akers’ footwork is good enough to avoid penetration into the backfield and turn losses into short gains on gap runs—especially with small jump cuts. However, Akers lacks the same refinement for zone and draw plays when it comes to pressing his blocks. His footwork isn’t as efficient as it is as a gap runner.

Although more prevalent of an issue with zone runs, Akers has lapses where he rushes his approach with gap blocking. He’ll run into the backs of lead blockers when he experiences these lapses of judgment. When Akers lacks patience on a zone play, he barrels towards creases with unblocked linebackers and safeties waiting—he forgets to press the line and force those defenders out of the hole.

A lead blocker—a fullback, H-Back, or tight end—is an ideal set up for his decision-making talents. The Seminoles didn’t always use this setup for Akers during his career. FSU veered away from it last year, placing Akers in a lot more 10 personnel sets (one back and no tight end). FSU also used Akers as a quarterback in empty set formations on a weekly basis.

Both scenarios allowed opposing defenses to focus on Akers with greater ease than in alignments with a tight end and/or fullback. These scheme changes and lackluster blocking made life harder for Akers and the Seminoles running game.

The year before, I noted a lot more plays where Akers displayed undisciplined and inefficient footwork. Although possible Akers improved in 2019, it’s also worth noting that he played the 2018 season with an ankle sprain that may have limited the type of footwork that he could use.

When healthy and processing his blocking scheme effectively, Akers has a lot of excellent movement in his game. He can make hard cuts reminiscent of Adrian Peterson. He’ll cut back from pursuit or execute violent sticks and sudden stops to allow backside pursuit to pass ahead. Like Peterson, Akers executes multiple violent cuts in succession to his left or right.

His hips are flexible enough that he can point his toe and open his hips for efficient turns leading to quick bounce outs or breaks downhill. Akers also has an excellent spin move that he applies in several ways.

He’ll avoid penetration into the backfield, spinning away from the opponent as soon as he takes the exchange. He’ll use the spin in the hole to avoid or bounce off head-on contact and reach open space. And, Akers has the agility to work a pair of spins—inside and outside—in succession while in the open field to avoid downhill pursuit.

Akers has control and range of his jump cuts. He can work away from the reach of a defender shooting a gap but still remain in that gap or he can cut across the width of a blocker’s shoulders and into the next gap over.

He’s at his best using moves in succession when he’s in the open field or he’s in a broken-field situation. Multiple moves while improvising within a zone play design isn’t as natural for him at this time.

Akers has burst that’s on the cusp of the RSP’s Starter Tier. Paired with his size and strength, Akers’ acceleration is enough to work through multiple reaches on runs up the middle. He can dip away from penetration early in runs to the short edge and reach the corner for positive yards. Akers acceleration isn’t as reliable to the edge at the long side of the field, because he has more trouble separating from safeties.

Once Akers reaches the open field, he can pull away from cornerbacks during runs covering 35-40 yards. He also reaccelerates well, which is helpful on broken-field runs and zone plays once he becomes adept with the blocking.

An endearing trait about Akers is his effort to die hard at the end of runs. He possesses an excellent stiff-arm to drop linebackers.
When he can earn a flush hit, his stiff-arm has the power to generate a thump that sends the defender to the ground. Akers breaks multiple reaches and wrap attempts in the open field with the stiff-arm.

He can also execute a throw-by against penetration in the backfield. A throw-by is a technique where the offensive player works his stiff-arm into the armpit, triceps, or shoulder blade of the opponent at an angle where he can use the defender’s momentum to his advantage and force the defender off-balance.

The effect of a good throw-by is the appearance of the offensive player throwing a player across his frame. Wide receivers and pass rushers use the move to separate from opponents but some of the more well-known uses of the maneuver in highlight history include Steve Smith throwing Pacman Jones and Marshawn Lynch’s throw-by of Tracy Porter during Beast Quake.

Akers is a powerful back. He runs through the reaches, wraps, and hits against all three levels of defenders. He’ll drop his pads and pull through defensive ends trying to wrap him high as well as low wraps from defensive tackles and linebackers in the crease.

If a linebacker hits Akers head-on in a crease, he can work through the collision and extend forward for extra yards as he’s falling to the ground. He’ll run over or spin off safeties trying to do the same.

Akers runs through safety and linebacker hits coming from indirect angles and when a hit knocks him off his feet, Akers has balance-touch skills to regain his footing and his stride. Although 10 pounds lighter than Peterson and not as strong, Akers has elite power to drag defenders and break multiple tackles during a run.

Akers has above-average contact balance because he can work through linebackers and safeties, but Peterson has elite contact balance. In fact, Peterson might (still) be in a tier of his own among active NFL players.

Like Peterson early in his career, Akers has below-average ball security. He fumbled 10 times in 656 touches during his FSU career—a rate of 1 per 65.2 touches that places him at the low end of the Committee Tier and on the cusp of Reserve Tier status.

Combative backs like Peterson, Jonathan Taylor, and Akers have a tendency to extend plays beyond the limits of maintaining safe passage for the football. Akers must tighten up his carriage of the ball and anticipate when to cover up and when to die a little easier if it means his team maintains possession of the ball.

If Akers can become a competent zone runner and hold onto the football, his work on passing downs will be an asset to a team. When examining backs in this class for the combined skills of receiving and blocking, Akers is the best of the group.

Akers catches the ball with proper framing of his hands to the trajectory of the target—including over-hand framing for chest-level targets that many top wide receiver prospects don’t execute. He extends his arms away from his frame for targets above his head, below his beltline, over the shoulder, and difficult angles behind his break.

Akers also has the concentration to make receptions with contact imminent to his chest or back or execute one-handed stabs when the target is beyond his range to use both hands. Akers earns targets downfield—wheel routes, deep crossers, and back-shoulder throws.

He’s skilled at earning separation underneath zones in the flats and also runs a reliable angle route, breaking into the middle of the field. Whether it’s from the backfield or split from the formation, Akers has enough receiving skills for a team to use him in versatile ways and there’s potential for him to become an even more dynamic route runner.

Think of Austin Ekeler running intermediate routes from the slot, and it’s something Akers has the potential to do for his team but with greater power and balance.

Akers is a willing and enthusiastic blocker, and he’ll be an immediate asset to an NFL team in this area with room to get even better. He improved over the course of his career as a puncher and whether he’s facing edge defenders or opponents up the middle, Akers squares his opponent and delivers a strong double-uppercut with a roll of the hips to generate power through his strikes. His initial position is key, setting up to the correct shoulder so he can turn his opponent away from the play.

He also moves well after the punch to remain square and funnel opponents away from the pocket or deliver a second strike. Although outweighed by 50-100 pounds when facing interior defenders, Akers squares and punches linebackers, defensive ends, and nose tackles that beat his linemen into the pocket.

Akers isn’t a guard or tackle in a running back’s body but his punch and position is enough to slow defensive tackles by a step and redirect them from the quarterback. Akers’s film portfolio has multiple blocks against defensive tackles where he has stalemated these big men long enough for quarterbacks to do their jobs. This is enough for a quarterback to earn an extra beat to get rid of the ball or break the pocket.

Akers also moves his feet well enough to hold off defensive ends when he can land a hard punch. He also has a feel for when to use stand-up technique and deliver the cut block. When he cuts edge defenders, Akers has a knack for delivering the shot at the latest possible moment so he can surprise the defender with the move.

One of the best things about his pass protection skill is his innate understanding for how to approach linemen in the pocket. Although good at delivering a punch and moving his feet, there are situations where his 217-pound frame isn’t going to get the job done without delivering greater force than proper technique affords. In these cases, Akers will deliver his pads to maximize impact.

In addition to his good assessment of what he must to do defeat individual defenders, Akers diagnoses blitzes effectively, slides across the formation to reach the edge and help with double-teams, and he mows down linebackers when asked to lead block for another runner.

There are details to his blocking that need refinement. He drops his head into his blocks despite shooting his hands and this can lead to Akers not seeing what he’s hitting and it telegraphs his intentions a beat early enough for a lineman to work past him. NFL defenders will make Akers pay for this more often than college opponents.

Although Akers cut blocks all three levels of the defense, his technique has a lot of minor flaws that include not earning enough height across the frame of his opponents. Still, the violence and timing of his efforts often widen opponents from the path to the ball even if Akers shows too low or his angle isn’t good enough to drop the defender.

When Akers has lapses as a stand-up blocker, it’s because he’s beaten to the punch and shoved back into the pocket, or he leans into contact after his punch and lacks a base to anchor. As a lead blocker, Akers can be too enthusiastic about delivering a shot and he won’t properly square-up his assignment.

Akers is an excellent talent that a program in decline (during his career) leaned over the past few years. He has rough spots to his game that could lead to a slower acclimation period to the NFL—most notably ball security and the possibility that a zone-heavy offense takes Akers in the draft.

The zone/gap facility is an important area of development for Akers, but we’ve seen Peterson, Tevin Coleman, and David Johnson become competent zone runners within 2-3 years, maximum. And this may not be as vital if Akers joins a team that prefers a gap-heavy attack.

Bruce Arians likes using gap plays and Akers could be a strong fit as a runner and receiver who can also keep Tom Brady intact in Tampa Bay. Indianapolis probably feels set with its depth chart, but the Buffalo Bills run their share of gap plays and could use a bigger back to complement Devin Singletary and provide high-upside redundancy for the offense if Singletary gets hurt.

Tennessee needs a backup and the Titans run enough plays that match what Akers does well for it to work. And if the Chargers don’t trust the duo of Austin Ekeler and Justin Jackson, Akers can begin his career as a situational contributor and grow from there.

Even if it takes a year or two for Akers to develop into a zone runner, it will be worth the wait. He has as much upside as any runner in this class.

That’s not even counting his past work as a quarterback. He can throw the ball accurately 10-15 yards downfield as well as deliver accurate opposite-hash targets on screens and throw-backs.

His work with run schemes may not be versatile enough just yet but the rest of his game might be the most versatile of his peers.

RSP Boiler Room: Incomplete Masterpiece

Cam Akers Highlights

Pre-NFL Draft Fantasy Advice: Akers likely finds a home in rounds 2-4 during the NFL Draft. His ADP before the NFL Draft in fantasy leagues might have the mid-to-late first round as the high range, but you’re getting the best value if he lands to you in the second round. He might even fall as far as the early third-round before May.