It was a surprise to many LA Chargers fans when Austin Ekeler requested permission to be traded early last week. Not only did Ekeler ask for permission, but the Chargers granted him permission after the two sides failed to make progress on a contract extension.
During an appearance on Chris Long's 'Green Light Podcast', Austin Ekeler clarified his trade request in regards to his contract extension talks:
Ekeler did state that there was no animosity towards the team if he's unable to find the deal he wants on the trade market. It doesn't seem as though a holdout situation would happen here, a la Melvin Gordon in 2019.
"Worst case scenario, it's not even worst case really, OK, go play on the last year of your deal in LA and become a free agent," Ekeler said.
However, the picture that Ekeler paints of the situation is still one where the two sides are just as far apart as has been reported. As stated in the interview, Ekeler is underpaid and the Chargers have put a current block on contract talks. It makes sense for him to potentially seek out where he can get his value elsewhere.
Austin Ekeler gives an idea of what he wants to be paid by the Chargers.
While not an exact figure given in the interview per se, there is a number that Ekeler seems to be looking for. As he is set to make $6.25 million in 2023, he seemingly wants that number doubled with his "getting half my value of what I can be getting" comment. Doubling that figure would put Ekeler's yearly salary at $12.5 million.
$12.5 million in AAV would tie him for the fourth-highest running back with Derrick Henry. Ekeler is coming for top-five running back money on his new contract, whether he can get it somewhere else or with the Chargers.
For the record, if you're purely looking at production, Ekeler deserves to be paid like a top-five back. As said in the interview, he'll give the team he plays for 20 touchdowns and a lot of all-purpose yards.
At the same time, one has to wonder if Ekeler and his team are failing to read the market right now. Free agent spending is at a historic all-time low this year as top market players like Dalton Schultz and C.J. Gardner-Johnson have been forced to take one-year deals. Teams are saving money for next year's cap increase.
Aside from that, there's of course the value of the running back. Is there a team out there with a less Ekeler-friendly offense than the Chargers have who is willing to give Ekeler a two to four-year deal at $12.5 million AAV?
Right now, despite his production warranting it, the answer is probably no. The running back market in free agency has been incredibly weak and the teams that do "need" one (Philadelphia, Buffalo, Miami, etc.) are settling for running back by committee situations.
Ekeler is right. He is getting half of what he should be getting. But the current market suggests he isn't going to come close to doubling his salary anytime soon.