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LA Chargers: Grading Austin Ekeler and the 2020 RB group

ORCHARD PARK, NY - NOVEMBER 29: Austin Ekeler #30 of the Los Angeles Chargers runs the ball during a game against the Buffalo Bills at Bills Stadium on November 29, 2020 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images)
ORCHARD PARK, NY - NOVEMBER 29: Austin Ekeler #30 of the Los Angeles Chargers runs the ball during a game against the Buffalo Bills at Bills Stadium on November 29, 2020 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images)
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(Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images) – LA Chargers
(Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images) – LA Chargers

Coming into the 2020 season, I had a bit of a wait-and-see approach when it came to the LA Chargers‘ running back group. The first year without Melvin Gordon would certainly be with a transition. Austin Ekeler was handed the RB1 role while Justin Jackson was in the mix. Fourth-round pick Joshua Kelley also would have a role to play.

The group was a mess for most of the year. Los Angeles did improve on their per-game rushing total from 2019, so that’s a positive. That comes with somewhat of an asterisk though-the Chargers averaged over six more rushing attempts per game in 2020. Ultimately, they were running the ball more and doing it less efficiently.

Austin Ekeler’s hamstring injury really put the whole unit in trouble. Justin Jackson had his own problems staying healthy. I didn’t write about Kalen Ballage in the offseason since he wasn’t on the team, but it got so bad that he had to be a constant fixture in the offense.

Joshua Kelley showed some real promise at the beginning but got worse in every game after Week 2. Towards the end of the season, he was a consistent healthy scratch. Not good!

Austin Ekeler

Despite the hamstring injury that kept him out for six games, Ekeler was easily the best part of this running back group. As a runner, it was his most efficient season. Even though he had 16 fewer carries than in 2019, Ekeler came up just 27 yards short of breaking his personal rushing record.  4.6 yards per carry beat his 4.2 YPC mark from 2019 as well.

When Ekeler returned for the Buffalo game, it was truly like he hadn’t missed a beat. It was another casual day at the office for him, leading the Chargers’ offense with 129 combined scrimmage yards. Ekeler followed that up with a good set of games, including a dominant effort vs. the Falcons.

Had Ekeler not gotten hurt, he would’ve been on pace for a truly remarkable year. A 16 game pace after his first three games had him at 1259 rushing and 757 receiving yards. I’m not sure that he would’ve quite hit those kinds of highs, but he wouldn’t have been too far off from 2000 combined scrimmage yards.

The team went 4-2 when Ekeler came back and was 2-4 in his absence. Football is a team game and the difference is obviously not all Ekeler, but it’s hard to ignore how much cleaner the unit looked when he returned.

Perhaps if he hadn’t gotten hurt, Joshua Kelley wouldn’t have crumbled under the pressure of an increased rookie role like he did. Kalen Ballage certainly wouldn’t have been needed. Along with Ekeler’s great offensive outputs, it’s the smaller deficiencies created by his absence that cost the running back unit.

Ekeler was great in 2020 and the unit clearly needs a fully healthy year from him to survive.

Final 2020 grade: B+

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