Could Austin Ekeler return to the Chargers in 2024?

The running back market appears to be on the cusp of change, one way or another. Productive veterans want to get paid but aren't. How does this affect the Chargers' situation with their star running back? And could this mean that Ekeler is in L.A. beyond 2023?
Los Angeles Rams v Los Angeles Chargers
Los Angeles Rams v Los Angeles Chargers / Katelyn Mulcahy/GettyImages

It is what it is.

Those were the words of Saquon Barkley after he and the New York Giants couldn't agree to a long-term deal. This week Saquon, Tony Pollard, nor Josh Jacobs could agree to long-term deals with their teams. Barkley sounded disheartened and defeated, but also unsurprised.

This has led to widespread discussion around the league amongst both players and fans about the future of the position. This seemingly will impact the way the Chargers and Austin Ekeler approach the 2024 offseason.

Ekeler weighed into the discussion which had many backs around the league supporting each other on social media. Each of them struck the same chord; that they were important, that they were deserving but they were being devalued.

The most unjust aspect of this, as Ekeler alludes, is that it's artificial. It's a conscious, league-wide decision to not pay these players. It appears that the relationships between the likes of Josh Jacobs and the Raiders and Barkley and the Giants are strained.

However, from a positive point of view, Ekeler and the Chargers' front office have kept things respectful and business-like throughout.

The team respected Ekeler enough to give him the opportunity to seek a trade. Ekeler wasn't successful and in order to smooth things out, Ekeler agreed to a reworked contract with $1.75m of easy-to-earn incentives. Now he is expected to play for the Bolts in 2023, but beyond that, time will tell.

I agree with Ekeler and the other backs in his situation, they are valuable to their teams. As much as offensive efficiency is gained through the air, January football requires an offense that can move the ball on the ground. Not only that but having an all-round weapon as the spearhead of a dynamic running game can level up an offense significantly.

The case in point is the San Francisco 49ers pre and post their trade for Christian McCaffrey last season.

The 49ers' offense was a little lifeless in weeks 1 through 7, but from Week 8 when McCaffrey arrived they didn’t lose again in the regular season. San Fransisco scored 30 or more points in seven of their 10 remaining games and vaulted to 2nd in the league in DVOA by the season’s end.

Just like McCaffrey, Ekeler is a do-it-all back who is just as much of a threat as a versatile pass-catcher as he is rushing the ball. 

With all that said, NFL owners are a stubborn foe.

Why would the status quo change after this season if Josh Jacobs, last season’s rushing leader can't get an extension? How come teams weren’t queuing up to trade for Ekeler this spring after he scored 38 TDs in two seasons?

All fair questions that Ekeler is going to have to consider after this season now that he has bet on being able to maintain that level of play. Will he remain that productive in what is going to be a more vertical passing attack?

The 2023 season could influence Austin Ekeler's future with the Chargers

As Chargers fans, we are certainly hoping to see a more expansive offense with more yards coming as air yards and more balls in the hands of the super-talented pass catchers on the roster. Those targets have to come from somewhere and when you consider that Ekeler had an inflated 127 targets in 2022, it is easy to see a chunk being taken out of that number in 2023.

If Ekeler’s trade market was lukewarm at best this offseason, how is his free agent market going to look in 12 months' time when he’s probably coming off what will statistically look like a down year? Not to mention he will be entering his age 29 season, the age that it feels like running backs typically begin to degrade.

That baggage will remain, so it might just be good business for him to settle for a good-not-great deal to remain in L.A. on a productive offense with a star quarterback. Not to mention the media and opportunities that are afforded to him in Los Angeles that wouldn’t be as lucrative in a smaller market.

Ideally running backs need to have some kind of mechanism installed to mean that this situation isn’t perpetuated long-term, however, it would probably not be implemented until the next CBA agreement. By then, Ekeler and all of the backs currently being affected will be long-retired.