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Austin Ekeler poised to take over as Chargers’ unquestioned featured back

Chargers running back Austin Ekeler finishes a 13-yard run to the two-yard line during third-quarter action against the Arizona Cardinals at StubHub Center.
Austin Ekeler will be the Chargers’ featured running back after signing a four-year contract worth up to $24.5 million in early March.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

As the Chargers prepare for the NFL draft, The Times will examine their roster. Part 8 of 10: Running backs.

In his first act as a newly minted big-ticket NFL running back, Austin Ekeler did the most basic of things. He called his mother.

After agreeing to a four-year contract worth up to $24.5 million in early March, Ekeler said he phoned her in part to carry on a family tradition.

“I called my mom right away, and that was the first thing I did when I made the team [three] years ago,” he explained on the day his signing became official. “I let her know that I was moving up a level as far as a pay bump. It felt great. You can’t really put it into words. I’m almost speechless … She was lost for words too.”

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Ready for a different kind of NFL mock draft? Football experts join Times NFL writer Sam Farmer to predict the first round of the 2020 draft.

Not that Suzanne Ekeler was expecting anything less from her overachieving son, who has become a Chargers mainstay after arriving as an undrafted and unknown rookie in 2017.

Entering 2020, Ekeler is poised to take over as the team’s unquestioned featured back, replacing Melvin Gordon, who, after Ekeler re-signed, departed for Denver as a free agent.

Ekeler rushed 132 times for 557 yards and caught 92 passes for another 993 yards last season. He led the team with 11 touchdowns.

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More of the same is expected now as this team looks to rebound from a 5-11 showing that featured an inconsistent offense.

Justin Jackson tries to elude Jacksonville Jaguars defenders Dec. 8 at TIAA Bank Field.
(Sam Greenwood / Getty Images)

Justin Jackson is forecast to back up Ekeler and, at the moment, is the only other running back under contract.

Entering his third season, Jackson has displayed the ability to produce in the NFL. His biggest issue has been remaining healthy. He appeared in only seven games last season as he dealt with leg issues. The Chargers believe Jackson can be an effective complement to Ekeler, as long as he’s available on Sundays.

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In an ideal world, the two would form a formidable duo to handle the bulk of the ground game while also serving as valuable check-down targets coming out of the backfield.

In expanding their impact more, both Ekeler and Jackson also have the ability to line up as outside receivers.

The biggest obstacle for the Chargers entering the season will be the rebuilt offensive line’s ability to jell, and solidifying the left tackle position.

Under contract for 2020: Ekeler ($5 million), Jackson ($750,000).

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Free agents: Fullback Derek Watt left for Pittsburgh, where he’ll join his brother, T.J., the Steelers’ decorated outside linebacker. Watt signed a three-year deal worth up to $9.75 million. Coach Anthony Lynn has indicated the Chargers intend on keeping the fullback position in their offense, meaning they’ll be adding at least a couple candidates to compete in training camp.

Draft: The expectation is the Chargers will draft a running back, though not likely in the earlier rounds. Running back is a position where contributors can be found almost anywhere in the draft. Remember, Ekeler went undrafted and Jackson was a seventh-round pick.

Roster decisions: With Gordon gone, Ekeler is the clear No. 1 back. The Chargers, as with many NFL teams now, prefer to employ some type of rotation at the position, mainly to spread out the physical toll. To that end, expect a few running back additions over next several weeks as they search for depth.

NEXT: Quarterbacks.


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