Austin Ekeler is prepared to take the next step as the Chargers’ top running back
With the preseason finales approaching, teams and players all over the NFL this week are blatantly violating one of the longest-standing rules in sports:
They’re taking it two games at a time.
So, while the Chargers are set to play Thursday night at San Francisco, running back Austin Ekeler was part of a group Tuesday that spent time going over blitz pickups for Week 1 versus Indianapolis.
As is NFL tradition, most of the starters won’t play in the final exhibitions, freeing them up to start preparing for the real thing.
Coach Anthony Lynn, however, explained that the spirit of Ekeler will be on the field at Levi’s Stadium.
“What I’m looking for is Austin Ekeler,” he said when asked about Thursday’s game. “That’s when he made this football team [two years ago]. I’m looking for guys to step up, make plays like him and change our minds.”
In late August of 2017, Ekeler was an undrafted, still largely unknown rookie out of Western State in Colorado. The Chargers also concluded that preseason on the road against the 49ers.
Dontrelle Inman says Philip Rivers played a role in helping him decide to return to the Chargers after he was granted his release by the Patriots.
Ekeler rushed eight times for 50 yards, caught three passes for 58 yards, and made two special teams tackles.
He has been a Charger ever since and, with Melvin Gordon holding out, enters this season as the team’s top running back.
“I put all my chips on the table,” Ekeler recalled. “I was just all-in on it. I played as well as I could have. After the game, ‘That was it. Now let’s see what the evaluation comes down to, and if it doesn’t work out, I have a backup plan.’ ”
Ekeler had an internship and job offer lined up at Noble Energy in Greeley, Colo. He had studied energy management in college and already had his immediate future mapped out.
First, though, he told the company’s recruiter that he one more thing he wanted to try.
“I told them, ‘Look, I’m only going to be young one time,’ ” Ekeler said. “ ‘I’m going to go play some football.’ ”
After making the Chargers as a rookie, he emerged over the last two seasons as an effective backfield complement to Gordon, Ekeler using his speed, shiftiness and small size to his advantage.
The duo was among the most productive in the NFL over the first half of last year before Gordon suffered an injury in mid-October.
And none of this likely would have happened had Ekeler not stood out that Thursday night two years ago when so much of the league already was peeking ahead to Week 1.
“It was just, ‘Hey, this is the last shot that I know of that’s guaranteed for me,’ ” Ekeler remembered. “I had studied enough. It was just, ‘Let’s relax. Let’s take a deep breath, and let’s go play.’ ”
Today, Ekeler is established and accomplished enough that the Chargers are readying to rely on him and second-year back Justin Jackson in the absence of Gordon.
A Pro Bowl selection in 2018, Gordon is scheduled to make $5.6 million in the fifth and final year of his rookie contract. He is seeking an extension in a so-far stalemated negotiation that could extend into the regular season.
“I’m ready whenever,” Ekeler said. “I’m a football player. You have to be flexible. We’ve got a guy here. If he comes back, I’m not going to be the starter anymore. He’s going to work his way back in.”
Gordon isn’t the only Chargers regular missing as their Sept. 8 opener against the Colts approaches.
Injuries along the offensive line have taken a toll on the Los Angeles Chargers, and the proof was in their performance against the Seattle Seahawks.
All-Pro safety Derwin James had foot surgery last week and is expected to miss three to four months. Left tackle Russell Okung remains out indefinitely after suffering a pulmonary embolism in June.
“Would we love to have those guys?” Ekeler said. “Absolutely. Is it going to have some impact? Absolutely. Those are Pro Bowlers we’re talking about. You can’t just replace Pro Bowlers. Let’s be real.
“Players help, absolutely. But, at the end of the day, it comes down to a collective team making a move and deciding, ‘We’re going to do this together.’ Everyone has to buy in to that for it to work.
“This is the NFL. Players are all over the place. It comes down to … everybody buying into the scheme and each other and moving forward. I’m excited for this season.”
Adderley set to play
Rookie safety Nasir Adderley is set to make his first game appearance Thursday after missing most of training camp because of a hamstring injury.
A second-round pick, Adderley was expected to challenge for the starting job at free safety before he was sidelined.
“He’s way behind,” Lynn said. “Anytime you miss three weeks of training camp and you’re a rookie, you’re way behind. We have to be careful putting him in certain situations because there’s a lot right now he just doesn’t know.”
Given their secondary depth, the Chargers don’t have a need to push Adderley, even with James out.
Coming out of Delaware, he was touted for his ball-pursuing skills. At one point, Adderley was considered a possible first-round selection. The Chargers took him with the 60th overall pick.
“I hope to see the play-making ball skills, his range, all the things he’s showed on tape that he still has,” Lynn said. “He just needs to get healthy. ... He’s going to play, so we’re going to find out.”
Because both Ekeler and strong safety Adrian Phillips are now starting, Lynn said “it’d be hard” to keep either on special teams. Phillips, who is replacing James, said last week that he wanted to remain on special teams after earning All-Pro recognition there in 2018. ... Lynn said Cardale Jones would start at quarterback Thursday and be followed by Easton Stick.
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