Austin Ekeler came into the 2017 season as a relatively unknown undrafted free agent, but did not stay that way for long. Now, he may have to be the featured Chargers running back.
Chargers fans were very excited to see if Austin Ekeler could expand on his very explosive rookie season, and in 2018 he did just that. Ekeler appeared in 14 games and finished with 39 receptions for 404 yards and three touchdowns, as well as rushed 106 times for 554 yards (5.2 yards per carry) and added another three touchdowns. In his first two years, Ekeler has proven that when given an opportunity, he can produce for the team.
How will Ekeler handle a larger number of carries, then, since his career high with the Chargers is 106 and Melvin Gordon‘s is 284? For that answer, one would have to go back to his college days. In four years at Western State, Ekeler never carried the ball less than 182 times, with a college-high of 298 total rushes. He ran for over 1,000 yards in all four years in college, even rushing for more than 1,600 yards twice. This goes to show that Ekeler has proven he can be a lead back and he can carry a large workload.
The main argument against Ekeler is that he has not produced well when given a chance to be the lead back in the NFL. There were three games in 2018 where Gordon could not play and Ekeler was handed the starting job. The first of the three was against the Titans, where Ekeler was given 12 carries but turned it into a very underwhelming 42 yards and zero touchdowns. The next game was against the Steelers, where he was handed the ball 13 times and rushed for 21 yards, a terrible 1.6 yards per carry and again zero touchdowns.
Though neither of those games were great performances by any means, 12 and 13 carries in each, respectively, were not enough to give a running back enough time to find a rhythm, especially one who is not used to being a featured rusher in the NFL. Since the Chargers were usually playing from behind in Pittsburgh, they had to abandon the running game before Ekeler could potentially find a groove. In the third game where Ekeler was featured, the Chargers could have a more balanced attack. Against the Bengals, he rushed the ball 15 times for 66 yards and one touchdown, finishing the game with an average of 4.4 yards per carry.
Although the his workload would increase significantly in the absence of Melvin Gordon, Ekeler is not going to have to run the ball all by himself this season. To help manage Ekeler’s increased snaps, Justin Jackson and Detrez Newsome will be used to deploy an offense that is both more efficient and more explosive. With his history of production in college, a game plan with him at the focal point, and the help of his fellow running backs, Ekeler should perform well for the Chargers if he is asked to do more this season.