While it’s possible the Los Angeles Chargers have the same running backs in 2020, it’s unlikely for a few reasons. What could shifts and changes in the current rotation look like?
Before the new league year begins in March, the current backfield for the Chargers is made up of Melvin Gordon, Austin Ekeler, Justin Jackson, and Troymaine Pope. Pope of course is more of a reserve back behind the main three, but he has been used in special teams and during the Miami game when the Chargers didn’t have Gordon or Jackson.
Three out of the four running backs enter some form of free agency. Gordon is an unrestricted free agent, Ekeler is restricted, and Pope has exclusive rights free agency, since he’s accrued fewer than three seasons.
The number that has been used for evaluating the 2020 salary for the Chargers is 60 million. That’s a number based on expiring contracts and projected salary cap for next season, so it doesn’t currently take into account players the Chargers may cut, players that leave, or potential retirements.
Since Gordon is a free agent, he’s ultimately going to the highest bidder. That still could be the Chargers in theory, if they decide to give him the $12-13 million deal he wanted. However, he’s probably not in a position to make that anymore, following his tumultuous 2019 season hampered by his holdout.
Ekeler will most likely, barring something unforeseen, be back in 2020 under a tendered deal. An original round tender for him as a restricted free agent would be risky. The likeliest option is the Chargers will place a second or first-round tender on Ekeler to prevent him from going to other teams without getting something substantial in return.
While Ekeler had an incredible 2019, it’s very unlikely teams would give up their first or second-round picks to the Chargers for him. The first-round tender puts Ekeler’s salary at $4.4 million, while the second-round tender puts it at about $3.1 million. Since the Chargers probably won’t want to take risks and have salary cap space anyway, the first-round tender seems likelier.
That makes Ekeler an unrestricted free agent come 2021, but in the meantime, the Chargers can negotiate on an extension while he plays on effectively a one-year deal. Ekeler will be back in powder blue next season.
Pope has exclusive rights free agency as said earlier, which means if the Chargers offer the NFL minimum, he’d be under contract with them for 2020. My guess is that Pope gets the offer and is at least in training camp for 2020. From there, it’s hard to predict what will happen with cuts.
Ekeler and Jackson are practically locks to be back in Los Angeles in 2020. Pope seems less likely but could make the team with another impressive training camp and preseason.
The real wild card is Gordon, as he could decide to go to another team pretty easily. Chargers’ management wasn’t enthusiastic about paying Gordon prior to his 2019 campaign, and it doesn’t seem like that’s changed following it. While Gordon could be back in the fold, it seems like he’s the odd man out in 2020 with the breakout of Ekeler and how replaceable Gordon ultimately was.
Despite Ekeler’s amazing 2019 season, it’s likely management would still replace Gordon if he left for a new team. Ekeler doesn’t really work well as an every-down back, and frankly, it doesn’t play to his strengths to use him that way.
A new split could look something like Ekeler getting 60 percent of the snaps, Jackson getting 20 percent, and a new running back getting 20 percent.
There’s a couple of ways the Chargers could replace Gordon. The first would be a cheaper, veteran free agent back. The Chargers were offered Jordan Howard in the offseason by the Philadelphia Eagles and turned it down.
Now that he’s a free agent, it’s possible they could pursue him. Howard had an impressive 2019 prior to injury, rushing for 525 yards and six touchdowns. It’s also worth noting that Howard had a higher yards per carry mark than Gordon.
LeSean McCoy is another relatively cheap option entering free agency that the Chargers had an interest in before he went to Kansas City.
It’s hard for me to see Gordon being a Charger next season since he’s an unrestricted free agent this year. While not impossible, $10-15 million per year seems like an awful lot to pay for a player who showed he was replaceable in his holdout and after.
It makes more sense to build around Ekeler, Jackson, and a veteran free agent or late-round draft pick from the standpoint of the salary cap. Having five to 10 million more in cap space to spend on other positions that are more crucial needs than running back could be very valuable to the Chargers’ 2020 and future overall.
One way or another, changes are coming to the running back position compared with personnel and how it was used in 2018 and 2019.