Los Angeles Chargers running back Austin Ekeler has experienced the kind of meteoric rise the National Football League rarely sees.
When we say meteoric rise, we’re not talking about a guy who makes the 53-man roster and then slowly rises up the depth chart. In Ekeler’s case, his long road to the NFL has been well chronicled, and it started well before his fight to make the team.
Ekeler has gone from unknown running back in high school, even from a local standpoint, to a guy playing at a small school in college that isn’t really known for churning out pros, to not getting invited to the combine, to not getting drafted.
But to say he’s proved some people wrong would be a massive understatement and in 2019, he went from a player many considered to be pretty good to a budding superstar ready for a breakout.
But in many ways, he broke out this past season, but not as a running back. Ekeler showed himself to be one of the league’s most effective receiving running backs.
Coming out of college at Western State, if you read the few scouting reports that were actually out there, Ekeler did draw some comparisons to Christian McCaffrey. Many who read those likely laughed, but no one should be laughing now.
As a receiver, Ekeler caught 92 passes for 993 yards and eight touchdowns this season. Only nine players in the entire league had more receptions. Ekeler also became the first Chargers player in 34 years to rush for 100 yards and have 100 yards receiving in the same game.
What a season.
Unfortunately, much of what is mentioned next will be overshadowed by McCaffrey, who had more receptions and more receiving yards than Ekeler this season. But McCaffrey was a first-round pick who played for a powerful college program. He was supposed to be this good.
But it also lends more credence to those comparisons made between the two players just a few years ago.
McCaffrey had 1,005 yards receiving on 116 receptions and is the game’s best receiving running back. But Ekeler is not far behind. Both players had a chance to break the single-season mark for receiving yards by a running back, set by Marshall Faulk back in 1999 as part of the “Greatest show on turf” St. Louis Rams.
Entering the final game of the season, Ekeler needed to have 99 yards receiving. He fell short, but the fact that he was within striking distance shows how good he was this season.
Ekeler is a shift runner, but he’s probably not an every-down feature back. However, his ability as a receiver makes the offense much more dynamic. Many Chargers fans used to scoff at the suggestion that Ekeler might be better than Melvin Gordon, but this season it wasn’t even a contest.
The team was much better when Ekeler was on the field.
Ekeler had a nearly historic 2019 season, finishing just 55 yards behind Faulk’s record. Yes, McCaffrey got closer, but that should not take away from what Ekeler did.
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In addition to nearly catching Faulk in receiving yardage, take a look at this list:
Most receptions in NFL history by a running back (single season)
1.Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers, 2019: 116
2. Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers, 2018: 107
3. Eric Metcalf, Atlanta Falcons, 1995: 104
4. Matt Forte, Chicago Bears, 2014: 102
5. Larry Centers, Arizona Cardinals, 1995: 101
6. LaDainian Tomlinson, San Diego Chargers, 2003: 100
7. Larry Centers, Arizona Cardinals, 1996: 99
T-9. Roger Craig, San Francisco 49ers, 1985: 92
T-9. Austin Ekeler, Los Angeles Chargers, 2019: 92
That’s not bad company and sums up just how good Ekeler’s season was. Yes, McCaffrey deserves to be gushed over, he’s a great player, but he was supposed to be a great player.
Ekeler has come from literally nowhere to be one of the league’s best young offensive players. It’s time for others to recognize him as such.