The Chargers and Austin Ekeler on Friday agreed to a contract extension that added another chapter to the running back’s once-unlikely story.
A restricted free agent, he received a four-year, $24.5-million deal that includes $15 million guaranteed as the team retained one of its most versatile players on offense.
Ekeler called the extension “a little overwhelming but also a little relief at the same time.”
He said his first call to share the news went to his mother, Suzanne, the same person he phoned first when he originally made the team.
“She was lost for words too,” Ekeler said. “She said, ‘I knew it, I knew it. It was just a matter of time until the rest of the world knew.’ She’s my No. 1 fan and has been since Day 1. You can imagine the emotions.”
Undrafted in 2017 out of what was then called Western State, Ekeler didn’t secure a roster spot until the final preseason game of his rookie year. He then established himself on special teams before emerging over the last two seasons on offense.
Ekeler, 24, rushed for 557 yards and caught 92 passes for 993 yards in 2019. His 11 touchdowns led the Chargers.
“I just gotta go out there and do the same thing that I’ve been doing,” Ekeler said. “There’s a different spotlight on me now for sure because I feel like I have been under the radar the last couple years.”
He’ll return to a backfield that will include fellow running back Justin Jackson but will feature a new quarterback, the Chargers parting ways with 14-year-starter Philip Rivers. Former 1,000-yard rusher Melvin Gordon also figures to be gone. Gordon, who gained 1,105 yards in 2017, is set to become a free agent.
The Chargers still could re-sign Gordon if an increasingly depressed running back market does not net him the sort of deal he’s seeking. During negotiations on an extension last year, the Chargers offered Gordon a contract worth roughly $10 million annually. It’s unclear if any team will place his value that high this offseason.
Ekeler provides the Chargers with a threat both running and catching the ball. He finished 2019 with the second-most receptions (LaDainian Tomlinson, 100 in 2003) and yards receiving in a season for a running back (Lionel James, 1,027 in 1985) in franchise history.
His signature game came at Jacksonville in December when he had a career-high 101 yards rushing and 112 yards receiving.