Bright future: Rookies Cam Akers, Van Jefferson shine on playoff stage

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Emmanuel Morgan
·5 min read
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Rams running back Cam Akers runs into the end zone for a two-point conversion against Green Bay in the third quarter. Akers took a pitch from receiver Van Jefferson, who had caught a pass thrown by Jared Goff. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Cam Akers is 60 pounds lighter and seven years younger than Green Bay Packers defensive end Za'Darius Smith. But for one play, the Rams’ 5-foot-10, 217-pound running back treated the two-time Pro Bowl selection like a little brother.

As Smith pursued Akers on a run, the rookie extended his right arm and forcefully pushed Smith’s facemask. Smith flopped to the ground, his arms flailing as he unsuccessfully tried to grab Akers’ shoulder pads.

The Rams eventually lost, 32-18, to the Packers in their NFC divisional-round playoff game. But that moment was one of several that might preview what’s to come for Akers and receiver Van Jefferson, rookies who excelled on the playoff stage.

Akers finished with 90 yards rushing in 18 carries and a touchdown. Jefferson, who started in place of the injured Cooper Kupp, finished with 46 yards receiving and a touchdown.

“They’re true pros,” safety John Johnson said. “They’re only going to get better. They had a couple of flashes this year. I’m excited to see what happens in the future for them.”

Akers’ stiff arm in some ways mimicked highlights often showcased by powerful Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry. And for much of the game, Akers played like him. The back rarely went down on first contact, and often provided life for the Rams offense.

In an added twist, coach Sean McVay used Akers in a wildcat formation four times, one play resulting in a touchdown. With just one minute remaining in the third quarter, Akers — who played quarterback in high school — caught the direct snap and ran to the right side. Krys Barnes collided with Akers just past the line of scrimmage, but he dragged the linebacker into the end zone for a seven-yard score.

“The more you can have the ball in Cam Akers’ hands, I think we’re in a good position,” McVay said. “This guy is going to be a big-time player. He got more and more confidence as the season went on. I have tremendous confidence in him.”

Akers, a second-round draft pick last April, enters the offseason seemingly as the No. 1 option at running back. McVay opened the season with a running-back-by-committee approach with Akers, Darrell Henderson and Malcolm Brown. But Akers’ role slowly increased as the season progressed. Including the playoffs, he finished with two 100-rushing-yard games and five touchdowns.

The man who previously held his spot, Todd Gurley — whom the Rams released last March — offered his compliments, tweeting “Akers” with a flexing emoji.

Rams receiver Van Jefferson (12) celebrates his touchdown catch with Robert Woods (17) and Jared Goff.
Rams receiver Van Jefferson (12) celebrates his touchdown catch with Robert Woods (17) and Jared Goff. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Akers scored a two-point conversion on a hook-and-lateral from Jefferson, also a 2020 second-round draft pick. Kupp, the Rams’ leading receiver who battled a knee injury all week, was declared inactive just before kickoff.

Jefferson caught the Rams’ first touchdown just before halftime on a four-yard curl route. He caught seven passes of six targets. In the regular season as the fourth receiver, he caught 19 passes for 220 yards and a touchdown. He’ll enter the offseason as the Rams’ third receiving option if free-agent-to-be Josh Reynolds does not return.

Whitworth finale?

Did left tackle Andrew Whitworth play the last game of his career?

It’s unclear.

But if he had it his way, signs are optimistic that he’ll return for a 16th season.

“I think with unfinished business, I think with what I’ve had to overcome this season, I would love to come back out here and compete with this football team again,” he said. “But there are a lot of things that have to align.”

Whitworth missed seven games this season after suffering a knee injury in November against the Seattle Seahawks. He said the medical staff told him a normal recovery timetable for that injury is 16 weeks. He returned last week for the wild-card round against the Seahawks. While it was safe, his knee didn’t function as per usual, he said.

“I knew coming back that I wasn’t going to be as healthy and as effective, maybe, as I had been in my past, but it was about more than just me,” said Whitworth, a team captain. “I know what I mean to these guys and how important it is for me to be in that huddle with them. To me, making that decision … made me more invigorated to go out there with them again, and hopefully things work out.”

Whitworth is scheduled to make a base salary of $7 million and $7.5 million the next two seasons, respectively, according to overthecap.com. Left tackle Joe Noteboom, whose rookie contract expires after next season, is scheduled to make $920,000 in base salary. During Whitworth’s absence, McVay had praised Noteboom’s performance.

Ramsey vs. Adams

The anticipated matchup between Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey and Packers receiver Davante Adams, at least at first glance, went to Adams. Pregame, a referee had to walk Adams back to his sideline after the two engaged in a heated exchange.

“I just said, ‘Look, I’m not one of the dudes you’ve covered, so I just want you to come with me and follow me everywhere,’ ” Adams told reporters.

Ramsey gave up a one-yard touchdown to Adams, though he was in man coverage and Adams’ pre-snap motion created space. Ramsey allowed only two touchdowns all season, according to Next Gen Stats.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.