Undrafted and undersized, he has been quite a find as a running back for the Chargers.
Nearly halfway through Austin Ekeler’s third NFL season, the Chargers are rediscovering him now — as a receiver.
“He’s so versatile,” quarterback Philip Rivers said. “You could say he’s a running back playing receiver or he’s a receiver playing running back. I think he’s that special and has that much ability.”
Ekeler, who signed as a free agent in 2017 out of Western State in Colorado, which has since changed its name to Western Colorado University, always has been a threat coming out of the backfield.
But, over the past few weeks in particular, the Chargers have been deploying him regularly from the slot and split wide.
Ekeler had a team-high seven receptions Sunday against Tennessee for 118 yards, his first career 100-yard game as a receiver or rusher.
“When he’s not the primary back, he has a versatility role where we can do that …” coach Anthony Lynn said. “Keenan Allen is a No. 1 guy, no doubt about it. But, you get Austin Ekeler on a linebacker, that becomes a No. 1 target.”
The Chargers have been searching for answers at receiver. Travis Benjamin and Dontrelle Inman are on injured reserve, thinning their depth.
They also have been unable to replace the production of Tyrell Williams, who left for Oakland in the offseason via free agency.
With Melvin Gordon back the past three games, the Chargers have been forced to find alternative ways to keep Ekeler involved in the offense.
“The more you can do …” Ekeler said. “So I’ll expand, if they’ll allow me to. As long as I can continue to make plays with what they’re giving me, I think you’ll see me probably get more reps.”
Since Gordon returned, Ekeler has rushed only 13 times for 28 yards and caught 25 passes for 218 yards.
He is tied with Houston’s DeAndre Hopkins for third in the NFL with 49 receptions. The next closest running back, New England’s James White, is tied for 14th with 38 catches.
“He’s quick, he’s explosive,” Lynn said of Ekeler. “He has excellent hands … I’ve always liked him in space.”
Against the Titans, Ekeler’s progress as a receiver was illustrated on the Chargers’ final drive. He ran a pair of five-step slant routes, the latter picking up 16 yards.
Before that series, Ekeler had never run a slant route. Well, at least not in a real game. And that’s while in school and in the NFL.
“It was new,” he said. “But, I mean, we’re all pretty good athletes. You just make it work.”
In the Chargers’ 23-20 loss Sunday, Ekeler also had their most explosive play — a 41-yard touchdown reception from Rivers with 5:09 remaining.
Lined up wide right, he badly beat Tennessee linebacker Wesley Woodyard with a basic double-move and raced into the end zone ahead of closing strong safety Kenny Vaccaro.
“I didn’t do anything crazy,” Ekeler said. “Just a little stutter [step]. Got him off his mark enough that I could just run by him.”
With the Chargers struggling to run the ball and score touchdowns of late, Ekeler is expected to remain one of their primary weapons, from the backfield and on the outside.
On Sunday, they will be matched against a Chicago defense that is fifth-best in the NFL at preventing points and 13th against the pass.
“It’s kind of routine at this point,” Ekeler said. “I’ve caught so many balls now, especially with Phil and I. We’ve been playing catch all season.”
Okung to play
The Chargers will get left tackle Russell Okung back Sunday. He missed the first seven games after suffering a pulmonary embolism in June. Lynn said Trent Scott will receive the “bulk of the reps” against the Bears but added that Okung definitely will play.
“It’ll be great to have Russ back out there,” Rivers said. “He brings more … than just on the field.”
Okung, who turned 32 this month, is in his 10th NFL season. He is a former team captain and a two-time Pro Bowl selection.
When Okung is ready to resume starting, Lynn suggested Scott could battle Sam Tevi for the starting right tackle job.
It appears Scott Quessenberry will remain at center, with recently signed veteran Ryan Groy providing depth at center and guard. Groy spent time with Buffalo when Lynn was coaching there.
“He’s a heck of a competitor,” Lynn said. “He may work his way into the lineup at some point.”
Defensive tackles Brandon Mebane (knee) and Justin Jones (shoulder) remain out after missing the game Sunday.
The Chargers signed veteran defensive tackle Sylvester Williams on Wednesday, an indication that one or both of those injuries could be longer-term.
Williams, 30, has appeared in 89 games with four teams over the last six seasons. Coming out of North Carolina, he was a first-round pick by Denver in 2013. Williams spent time last season with Detroit and Miami.
Also along the defensive front, edge rusher Melvin Ingram (hamstring) and tackle Damion Square (hamstring) were limited in practice.
Ingram appears close to returning after missing the last three games. Square started Sunday in place of the injured Mebane.
Fullback Derek Watt (knee) and running back Justin Jackson (calf) also were limited in practice. … Edge rusher Uchenna Nwosu has been dealing with a hip issue in recent weeks but has not missed any time. … Rookie defensive tackle Cortez Broughton was absent from practice because of an illness. … The Chargers placed guard Forrest Lamp (leg) on injured reserve.