With Melvin Gordon leaving the Chargers for Denver in free agency, Austin Ekeler could be in line for a huge season as the No. 1 backfield option with Los Angeles. Here are Ekeler’s odds at Mybookie to lead the NFL in rushing yards in the 2020 regular season as well as his odds to win Offensive Player of the Year.
No question that Ekeler is one of the best undrafted free agents in recent memory in the NFL. He played college football at Western State Colorado (never heard of it) and signed with the Chargers as an undrafted free agent in 2017. Ekeler broke nearly every Mountaineer career rushing record in college, carrying the ball 932 times for 5,857 yards and 55 touchdowns. He was a four-time first-team All-Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference selection.
Ekeler made the 53-man Chargers roster out of training camp in 2017. He took the first handoff of his career for a 35-yard score in Week 4 of that season vs. Philadelphia. Ekeler had two TD catches of 20-plus yards in a game at Jacksonville, becoming the first tailback to do so in a single game since Jamaal Charles (Dec. 15, 2013).
Overall, Ekeler had 47 carries for 260 yards (5.5 avg.) and two TDs and posted 27 receptions for 279 yards (10.3 avg.) and three TD. His three TD catches were the most by an undrafted rookie running back in Chargers history and tied RB Don Woods (1974) and RB James Brooks (1981) for the most by a rookie RB in team annals.
In 2018, Ekeler missed two games and carried the ball 106 times for 554 yards (5.2 avg.) and three TDs while posting 39 receptions for 404 yards (10.4 avg.) and three TDs, including a career-long 44-yard TD catch. He passed Hank Bauer for the second-most scrimmage TDs by an undrafted running back in team history over a player’s first two seasons, reaching 11 career scrimmage scores in the regular-season finale. The receiving scores brought his career total to six, making him the sixth undrafted tailback in NFL history to have at least six TD catches in his first two seasons. Ekeler also became the first undrafted running back to record five-plus TD catches in his first two seasons since 1966 (Dallas RB Dan Reeves had nine TD catches from 1965-66).
Last year, Gordon held out to start the season and Ekeler proved he could carry the load. During Week 14 against the Jaguars, Ekeler finished with 101 rushing yards on just eight carries, with four receptions for 112 receiving yards, and a touchdown as the Chargers won 45-10. Ekeler was only the sixth ever and the first since Herschel Walker in 1986 to average over 10 yards per carry and reception in a 100/100 game. It was only the fourth 100/100 game of the 2010s.
Overall, he finished the 2019 season with 557 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns to go along with 92 receptions for 993 receiving yards and eight receiving touchdowns. Only the Panthers’ Christian McCaffrey had more receptions (116) among running backs.
In March of this year, the Bolts rewarded Ekeler with a four-year, $24.5 million extension in knowing they were going to lose Gordon in free agency. The contract includes $15 million in guaranteed money. Should Ekeler remain on the team after 2021, he has a $6.5 million and a $7.25 million cap hit in each of the next two seasons. Ekeler was scheduled for restricted free agency.
With Gordon and Derek Watt moving on this offseason, Ekeler is now the oldest member of the Chargers’ running backs room. Ekeler is considered a stellar locker-room guy.
“I think that’s the biggest thing with Austin is just growing as a leader,” running backs coach Mark Ridgley said. “And again, not only of our room, but as a leader of our team. I think that’s important. You lose guys like Philip (Rivers) and some older guys that have been around for a while – some voices that have resonated very loudly in our locker room. We need to replace that as well.”
Chargers offensive coordinator Shane Steichen has said that “All three of [Austin Ekeler, Justin Jackson, and Joshua Kelley] are going to share the load” this coming season. Clearly, though, Ekeler will get the most touches – but he’s so good as a receiver that he might not run nearly enough to win the rushing title.
The Chargers are 3-point Week 1 favorites at Cincinnati.