Lately, there has been plenty to moan and groan over as it relates to the Los Angeles Chargers.
Whether it be the fact that a team that went to the divisional round of the playoffs last season is sitting at 4-7 or the poor performance and potential future of Philip Rivers, there has been plenty to talk about, much of it shocking in terms of what expectations were to start this season.
But if we look for a positive, a good place to start is with running back Austin Ekeler, who is having a career year.
When it was announced that Melvin Gordon was going to hold out as the team got ready for training camp, all eyes turned to Ekeler. It was clear that he would have to shoulder the load as long as Gordon was absent, and he was able to do that.
The undrafted running back who many thought was “too small” to ever play in the NFL has been stellar for the Chargers this season. However, he has mostly done that as a receiver.
Ekeler has actually been fairly stagnant as a running back this season, gaining 364 yards on 95 carries. In his first two seasons in the league, he averaged over five yards per carry. That number has dropped to 3.8 yards per carry this season.
But in the passing game, he’s been as good as it gets. Through 11 games, he has caught 65 passes for 667 yards and six touchdowns. In seven of those 11 games, he has caught five passes or more.
Gordon has returned to the field and is basically back to being himself after a slow start. Still, in Monday night’s loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, the Chargers’ offense was clearly more threatening with Ekeler on the field that Gordon, particularly toward the end. Ekeler as a receiver gave the Chiefs fits all night in Mexico as he caught eight passes for 108 yards.
He has been terrific almost every game this season and has been the most consistent player on offense. Many fans may want to point to Keenan Allen as the offensive MVP, but Ekeler is the right choice because of the numbers he is putting up as a receiver out of the backfield.
Just last season, Christian McCaffrey broke the NFL all-time record for receptions by a running back, posting 107 catches on the season. Ekeler, with five games to play, sits just 42 catches from that mark. He would have to get eight to nine catches per game to break that mark, but it could certainly be done.
Even so, Ekeler has a great chance to put himself in elite company by season’s end. Here is a look at the top 10 receptions by a running back in a single season.
1. Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers, 2018: 107
2. Matt Forte, Chicago Bears, 2014: 102
3. Larry Centers, Arizona Cardinals, 1995: 101
4. LaDainian Tomlinson, San Diego Chargers, 2003: 100
5. Roger Craig, San Francisco 49ers, 1985: 92
T-6. Saquon Barkley, New York Giants, 2018: 91
T-6. Charlie Garner, Oakland Raiders, 2002: 91
T-8. Steven Jackson, St. Louis Rams, 2006: 90
T-8. Brian Westbrook, Philadelphia Eagles, 2007: 90
T-10. Richie Anderson, New York Jets, 2000: 88
T-10. Reggie Bush, New Orleans Saints, 2006: 88
T-10. Rickey Young, Minnesota Vikings, 1978: 88
That’s an impressive list and with just 14 more receptions, Ekeler will be a name inside that top 10. That is incredible for a guy who went undrafted and was never supposed to be anything more than maybe a practice squad guy.
Hard work and dedication have paid off for Ekeler and hopefully, in the offseason, the Chargers recognize that he is not only a key cog on the offense but one of the best players on the team by signing him to a new deal. He will be a restricted free agent at season’s end.
While we may want to talk about the fact that Allen is having another great season or that Gordon is still the man in the Los Angeles backfield, it’s Ekeler that has had the best season of anyone on offense and potentially the entire team.
Ekeler is, at least up until this point, the team’s runaway offensive player of the year.