2023 was not very kind to Austin Ekeler. During the offseason, Ekeler and the Chargers were unable to come to terms on a contract extension, which prompted the veteran running back to request permission to seek out a trade.
Permission was granted as the Chargers knew what Ekeler may not have realized: there were not going to be any suitors. The running back market is already a cheap one and with so many miles on his legs, no team was going to trade draft capital and extend Ekeler in the process.
Even after all of this the Chargers still gave Ekeler new incentives on his contract to give him a chance to earn more money in the last year of his deal. Most of those incentives likely were not reached as Ekeler had the worst year of his entire career. After a promising start in Week 1, an ankle injury sidelined Ekeler for three weeks and he just didn't look the same once he returned.
Most fans expected this to be Ekeler's last year with the team and the 28-year-old confirmed that after the game. Ekeler didn't leave much for the imagination when talking to reporters, saying that he is entering a new chapter of his career (via Daniel Popper of The Athletic)
"“I’m not going to be with these guys anymore, and it’s one of those journeys that I’ll always remember,” said running back Austin Ekeler, one of many Chargers headed for free agency. “But sad that it has to end.”"
Austin Ekeler confirms his Chargers career is over
Update: Austin Ekeler walked back his comments the following day, although it is still very unlikely he returns to the Chargers.
The writing was on the wall for Ekeler to leave the Chargers before the season even began and this confirms what Chargers fans already knew. Ekeler is going to explore new opportunities and he leaves behind a memorable tenure with the Bolts.
The fanbase started to sour on Ekeler as the season went along, starting with his request to be traded. The results simply were not matching what Ekeler was asking for, which brought back very similar vibes to the Melvin Gordon situation from years ago.
Ekeler finished the 2023 season with 628 rushing yards on 179 carries, giving him the worst yards per carry (3.5) of his entire career. In the passing game, Ekeler hauled in 51 catches for 436 yards — both figures being much lower than the last two seasons. Week 18 served as a perfect ending for Ekeler as well, as he picked up just 11 yards on 10 carries against the Chiefs.
While Ekeler's last season may have been overshadowed by failed extension talks and poor play, that is not how his Chargers career should be remembered. Ekeler was a true success story for the team and turned from an undrafted free agent to a legitimate touchdown machine for the Chargers.
Sure, he may not have ever been as good as he seemed to be in fantasy football but he still gave the Chargers a consistent presence at running back for several years. Many teams would die to have what Ekeler gave the Chargers during his tenure.
Now, the Chargers have to move on and find the next running back who can find the end zone alongside Justin Herbert. As for Ekeler, it will be interesting to see what kind of offers (if any) he gets after the worst season of his career.