Chargers running backs: Austin Ekeler and ‘a bunch of young, hungry, talented guys’
He has been assigned a new role, one that couldn’t be more simply stated or loosely defined.
Austin Ekeler is now the Chargers’ unquestioned featured back — a job not about one position but rather all of them.
“I don’t think my role will change much and I’m OK with that because I love my role,” Ekeler said. “I’m all over and I love it … It all comes together, like trying to be the ultimate athlete on the field.”
In each of his five seasons with the Chargers, Melvin Gordon was the team’s leading rusher. He was drafted with the 15th overall pick in 2015 with the understanding that he would — almost literally — carry the offense.
But rather than double-down on Gordon and commit to signing him to a second contract, the Chargers permitted him to depart in free agency and invested instead in Ekeler, a once undrafted nobody from unknown Western State.
In doing so, they officially moved into a new era of offensive diversity and continued the NFL’s recent trend away from the high-mileage and higher-salaried running back.
Though the Chargers have had only one 1,000-yard rushing season since 2014 — Gordon with 1,105 yards three years ago — this is still the franchise of LaDainian Tomlinson, who strung together eight consecutive such seasons starting in 2001.
The Chargers locked up defensive end Joey Bosa, added sturdy reinforcements and returned reliable players to a defense looking for more turnovers and sacks in 2020.
“As far as my body and what I can handle, I’m not that,” said Ekeler, who signed a four-year, $24.5-million deal in March. “I know that’s not me. My body would not be able to last an entire season if that was my situation.”
To understand how profound of a statement that is, remember that Ekeler — pound for pound — is the strongest Charger. His workouts have become legendary, on the team and the internet.
But at 5 feet 10 and 200 pounds, he packs more muscle than mass while featuring a running style that can be described as equal parts speed and violence. Ekeler is built to blast more than he is built to last, at least as a pounding-type running back in the demanding NFL.
In three seasons, he has 285 carries. Gordon carried 284 times in 2017 alone. Tomlinson never had fewer than 292 carries during his 1,000-yard streak.
So now, with Ekeler lining up everywhere from behind the quarterback to the slot to the widest side of the formation and a threat as a receiver as well as a runner, the Chargers will rely on Justin Jackson and Joshua Kelley to further support their ground game.
“At the running back spot, you take so much of a beating,” Ekeler said. “It’s that, but also you can change your dynamic at running back. You have different dynamics at the position, which can create different matchups.”
Coach Anthony Lynn called his running backs “a bunch of young, hungry, talented guys.”
Jackson was a seventh-round selection in 2018 and has shown bits of brilliance in a career so far slowed by injury. He averaged nearly seven yards an attempt a year ago but appeared in only seven games.
His finest performance remains a mid-December effort in Kansas City in 2018, when he rushed 16 times for 58 yards and scored a late touchdown in a still-stunning 29-28 win.
“This year’s a big year for Justin,” Lynn said. “We gotta find a way to get him on the field and have him contribute. I think everyone saw what he can do when he’s healthy.”
Kelley was a fourth-round pick in April, arriving wearing a smile and carrying an Ekeler level of enthusiasm. Ekeler, recall, celebrates his touchdowns by wildly grinding on an air guitar.
In camp, Kelley ran with the passion and perseverance of a player who didn’t make it to UCLA until after starting his career at UC Davis. He repeatedly was able to race around the edge and burst upfield.
“Great kid, great person,” Chargers running back coach Mark Ridgley said. “As far as football-wise, he’s kind of had to pave his own way too. I’m excited to see what he’s going to grow into for us.”
The Chargers are adding another significant running element in quarterback Tyrod Taylor. For the last 14 seasons, Philip Rivers was a constant threat with his arm and an afterthought with his feet.
Taylor averaged 525 yards rushing annually during his three seasons as Buffalo’s starter. He also ran for 90 first downs. Rivers rushed for a first down twice last season and two times the season before.
Drue Tranquill recently described new Chargers teammate Kenneth Murray Jr.’s legs as “glossy.” It was most definitely a compliment.
“Him having that ability, even if we’re doing zone reads, the backside is always going to have to play [the quarterback],” Ekeler said. “It’s going to add a different dynamic to our running game that I’m looking forward to seeing.”
Ekeler is coming off a year in which he ran 132 times for 557 yards and caught 92 passes for 993 more, missing out on a 1,000-yard receiving season only because Rivers didn’t throw his way in the closing minutes of the finale.
Yet, respect still has been slow to come to this former Western State Mountaineer, even in a category in which Ekeler almost always is respected.
When the rankings for the “Madden NFL 21” video game were released this summer, Ekeler’s strength was only 70. One of his best friends is Trent Sieg, the long snapper for the Las Vegas Raiders. Sieg’s strength was 69.
“All you do is snap the ball and run down the field,” Ekeler said, laughing. “That literally is your entire job. … I was like, ‘Dang, when you put it like that…’ So my agent and I hit ’em up like, ‘Hey, let’s get this adjusted.’”
So the folks responsible for such things bumped Ekeler’s strength to 79, a fitting nod to a player expected to lift so much of the 2020 Chargers’ offensive load.
Breaking down the Chargers’ running backs
AUSTIN EKELER: Coming off a highlight-filled season with a new $24.5-million contract should continue to shine.
JUSTIN JACKSON: Has shown bursts of potential during his first two NFL season but desperately needs to stay healthy.
JOSH KELLEY: A fourth-round pick in April, is expected to contribute on offense — he stood out at times in training camp - and special teams.
DERRICK GORE: A practice-squad player last season, could have a role this year, particularly on special teams.
DARIUS BRADWELL: Undrafted rookie out of Tulane who made news on “Hard Knocks” because he reported to camp too heavy.
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