Austin Ekeler's compromise with Chargers shows RB had no leverage with trade request
Per ESPN's Adam Schefter, the Chargers and Austin Ekeler have agreed to an incentive-laced solution to keep him in Los Angeles for 2023:
Austin Ekeler's trade request after extension talks with the Chargers ultimately didn't materialize the way he wanted came as a surprise initially. But after a few months month and the 2023 NFL Draft passing by, it became apparent that there was not an appetite around the league to either trade draft capital or extend him in a deal.
The Chargers had the leverage in this situation from day one. Despite Ekeler's fantastic production, the position he plays and his age always had him at a disadvantage. NFL offenses are evolving to the point of truly making the lead, highly paid bell cow back an extinct species in favor of platoons and running back by committee.
That being said, the Chargers had to also meet him in the middle by giving Ekeler a pay bump for this season. Unlike 2019 with Melvin Gordon, they didn't have a proven player in the backfield that was ready to take it from Ekeler in the event of an unlikely holdout. Ekeler's usage rate in this Chargers' offense and his role as a leader on and off the field were irreplaceable short term. Perhaps Isaiah Spiller eventually breaks out, but going into the season with him as the RB1 would've been a particularly risky gamble.
Ultimately, as Schefter points out in the original tweet announcement, both sides got what they wanted. The Chargers get another year out of a top 10 running back to push harder for contention in the AFC and if Ekeler has another 20 touchdown season in him, maybe he can get that deal in 2024 that he believes he's deserving of.
The contract revision of $2 million dollars being tied to incentives is important to point out from the Chargers' standpoint as well. Their salary cap situation remains the same despite the pay bump given to Ekeler, considering the rework does not add any guaranteed money.
What the Chargers do after 2023 is the ultimate fascination here. They're probably not likely to extend or franchise tag Ekeler as we've seen Tom Telesco draw his line in the sand during the negotiations. But if he does get the bag somewhere else in free agency, is their an on-roster solution ready to step up in time? Does Ekeler regress a bit after seasons of heavy usage potentially prompting a return?
There's still a number of ways this situation can play out. But for now, the focus is on 2023 and the Chargers have their premier running back returning into the fold.