Column: Chargers are on shaky ground game with only Austin Ekeler to count on
The Chargers’ first two attempts at drafting a running back to take some of the load off Austin Ekeler’s shoulders haven’t gone so well.
Larry Rountree III, drafted in the sixth round out of Missouri in 2021 with the hope he’d be a forceful short-yardage back, was inactive by mid-October. He had 36 carries for 87 yards, all by Nov. 21, and one reception for minus-one yard. He ended the season mostly on special teams duty.
Joshua Kelley, drafted in the fourth round out of UCLA in 2020, did little to impress in his second season with 33 carries for 102 yards and five catches for 38 yards. He played 10 games and has a two-season average of 3.17 yards per carry.
A third whiff at drafting a running back to complement the 5-foot-10, 200-pound Ekeler this season logically would force the Chargers to make a trade — as the Rams did last August in acquiring Sony Michel, who led them in regular-season rushing yards — or look at other teams’ late roster cuts to add a veteran backup.
Failure of the Chargers defense against the run and on third down cost them a chance for postseason play last season, but top running back Austin Ekeler sees huge improvement on that side of ball.
In the meantime, the Chargers are hoping someone will emerge in training camp to win the No. 2 running back job, a competition that will ramp up when they begin regular practices in pads and face tacklers and players can be evaluated in special teams roles.
“We’re going to give them every opportunity to prove themselves,” coach Brandon Staley said of the No. 2 running back candidates. “That’s what this training camp is going to be about for that position.”
The newest contender is 2022 fourth-round draft pick Isaiah Spiller of Texas A&M, who was appealing to the Chargers partly because he showed versatility as a junior by rushing for 1,011 yards in 179 carries and making 25 catches for 189 yards.
Spiller has been receiving guidance and inspiration from Ekeler, who made the roster as an undrafted free agent out of Western Colorado University in 2017 and worked his way up from special teams to backing up Melvin Gordon and then to a vital and featured spot.
The Chargers worked to aggressively bolster their secondary during the offseason. The new lineup is attacking training camp and vying for snaps.
“Just to see him grow, it’s crazy and it’s an amazing story,” Spiller said after a practice in Costa Mesa last week. “So, it’s just learning from him, his mindset, the way he thinks, the way he carries himself. I’m just picking up on things like that, for sure.
“I’m just coming in every day, proving my worth to the team, that I’m an asset and the team needs me. I’m taking it day by day, learning, listening to what Austin’s got to say, running the plays. I’ve still got to show all that. It’s a process. I’m just enjoying the process.”
Ekeler compiled career-best totals last season with 206 rushing attempts, 911 yards, and 12 rushing touchdowns. He also had 70 receptions for 647 yards and eight touchdowns, matching a career high. He played 16 games, which was encouraging after he was limited to 10 games in 2020 because of hamstring and knee problems.
Staley said he doesn’t see Ekeler’s role changing even if someone emerges to take some touches away. “Hopefully, we can do even more with him,” Staley said.
But offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi is mindful of the pounding Ekeler routinely absorbs and of the potential impact of losing him to injury.
“I’m not expecting any kind of dip in usage of him. But, like any running back, unless you’re 250 pounds, sometimes there’s a pitch count on those guys,” Lombardi said.
“He’s not someone that you want to lose halfway through the season because you overused them. Just being smart with how many times he’s getting hit every game is something that you have to keep an eye on. And so we’re going to count on those other guys to pick up the slack when he’s not in there.”
That’s asking for a lot.
Ekeler, 27, said the running backs have been competitive and he welcomes being pushed by them, but his versatility gives him a huge edge.
“It’s my job to add as much value as I can, not only in the running back spot but out in the slot and kind of all over the field,” he said. “I think that’s where I have a lot of value in my game is you can pretty much put me wherever and I’ll have some type of value on the runs deep down the field, speed, whether you want me running across the middle or whether you want to hand the ball to me, throw to me, have me as a decoy going one way for a screen type of thing. I’m going to be efficient wherever you put me.”
Wherever they put him, it’s essential he avoids major injury — and that he has a backup who can make significant contributions.
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“If we’ve got a guy who’s shown that he’s a predominant runner, can really pound the rock and is really strong at that, maybe stronger than I am, then it’s like we can still see him, but I still see myself being on the field at the same time,” Ekeler said, recalling that he and Gordon split carries in 2019.
“As far as my load, yeah, maybe it could be altered a little bit, but I don’t think it’ll go down. I think it will just look a little bit different, if anything.”
The more it looks like a strong one-two punch at running back, the better the Chargers’ chances of qualifying for the playoffs.
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