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Chargers hoping to get the most out of running back Austin Ekeler

Chargers running back Austin Ekeler runs the ball against the Indianapolis Colts in Carson on Sept. 8, 2019.
Chargers running back Austin Ekeler, shown in a game against the Indianapolis Colts in 2019, missed six games in 2020 because of a hamstring strain.
(K.C. Alfred / San Diego Union-Tribune)

As the Chargers prepare for the NFL draft, The Times will examine their roster. Part 7 of 8: Running backs.

To understand the impact Austin Ekeler has had on the Chargers’ offense, consider this:

In his four seasons, he never has rushed for more than 557 yards.

Seems almost impossible, right, for someone who has combined big-play ability with consistent production?

Three things — splitting time with former teammate Melvin Gordon, extensive usage as a receiver and injuries — have tempered Ekeler’s annual rushing haul.

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He missed six games in 2020 after suffering a hamstring strain in Week 4.

At 5 feet 10 and 200 pounds, Ekeler isn’t built to be a downhill, 25-carries-a-game grinder. But he can do just about everything else coming out of the backfield, a reality the Chargers would love to exploit in 2021.

Through his foundation, Chargers running back Austin Ekeler is helping to build a new gym at Santa Barbara High School.

Ekeler, who turns 26 in May, is entering the second season of the four-year extension he signed in March of last year. The deal guarantees him $15 million and is worth up to $24.5 million.

He averaged 4.6 yards per carry and 5.4 receptions per game last season. Only Keenan Allen caught the ball more on average in 2020.

Still, Ekeler’s influence on the ground has lagged as the Chargers have missed the playoffs in consecutive years. Since Sept. 29, 2019, he has one rushing touchdown. Ekeler has appeared in 22 games during that stretch.

That’s a trend likely to shift dramatically this season under new coach Brandon Staley.

“I’m excited to see just the mentality, the standard that’s set in the locker room,” Ekeler said of the Chargers’ change at the top. “Excited to see some new leadership, as well.”

After Ekeler, the Chargers have Justin Jackson and Josh Kelley, both of whom have shown potential but also limitations. Jackson has struggled to stay healthy during his three NFL seasons, and Kelley had fumbling problems as a rookie.

Ten former USC Song Girls described to The Times a toxic culture within the famed collegiate dance team that included longtime former coach Lori Nelson rebuking women publicly for their eating habits, personal appearance and sex lives.

Under contract for 2021: Ekeler ($5.75 million), Kelley ($975,086), Jackson ($920,000), Gabe Nabers ($780,000), Darius Bradwell ($660,000).

Free agents: Kalen Ballage gave the Chargers a lift last season after Ekeler was injured. He signed a one-year deal with Pittsburgh in late March.

Draft: The Chargers used a fourth-round pick to select Kelley out of UCLA a year ago. Even with nine selections, it seems unlikely that they’d draft another running back this time around. Then again, if there’s someone they really like ... General manager Tom Telesco did take running backs in 2014 (Marion Grice, sixth round) and 2015 (Gordon, first round).

Roster decisions: The Chargers figure to add some potential running back depth in free agency among undrafted players.

NEXT: Quarterbacks.


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