Forget Melvin Gordon; It's Austin Ekeler's Time to Become an NFL Star

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystAugust 3, 2019

Los Angeles Chargers running back Austin Ekeler runs against the Cincinnati Bengals during the first half of an NFL football game Sunday, Dec. 9, 2018, in Carson, Calif. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong )
Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

Move aside, Melvin Gordon. Austin Ekeler will take your job, and the Los Angeles Chargers offense won't take a step back when the current backup becomes the starter. With Gordon out of the way, Ekeler's play and potential portend a star in the making.

Gordon and the Chargers front office are engaged in a contract standoff. The running back's agent, Damarius Bilbo, told ESPN's Josina Anderson he officially requested a trade for his client since the franchise wasn't willing to budge from its offer of $10 million annually.

The three highest-paid running backs—the Los Angeles Rams' Todd Gurley, New York Jets' Le'Veon Bell and Arizona Cardinals' David Johnsonaverage $13.5 million per season. Obviously, the two sides face a significant gap to bridge. Yahoo Sports' Charles Robinson reported Gordon and the Chargers are least $2 million apart in their valuations, and he speculated that $12 million per year with incentives could get an extension done.

Los Angeles Chargers running back Melvin Gordon
Los Angeles Chargers running back Melvin GordonSteven Senne/Associated Press

But the Chargers don't have to move off their number. Ekeler's presence, along with further depth, provides the organization with leverage.

Quarterback and team leader Philip Rivers let Gordon know exactly where the running back stands with the team.

"It certainly is a deep position for us, and those guys all love to play and work hard," Rivers said, per the Daily Pilot's Matt Szabo. "We love Melvin, but we're going to go with what we've got. It's a pretty dang good group."

Ekeler is the right choice to become the focal point as Gordon's possible replacement, but the Chargers also feature Justin Jackson and Detrez Newsome. Both have shown they are capable backs in the rotation. Gordon's team-leading 225 touches last season will go elsewhere if L.A. trades the two-time Pro Bowler.

"Even if [Gordon] was here, we'd have the same mentality," Ekeler told reporters. "We wish he was here. Shoot, he would help our team, he's a Pro Bowl running back. But even if he was here, we'd still have to move forward, and even if he's not here, we still have to move forward."

Ekeler excelled in limited opportunities. The second-year running back averaged seven yards per carry in Week 2 against the Buffalo Bills and their second-ranked defense. Ekeler caught 10 passes against the Arizona Cardinals later in the season. The 24-year-old gained 958 total yards in 14 games with only three starts.

Over the last two seasons, Ekeler has been more effective than Gordon, as Pro Football Focus' Austin Gayle noted:

Gordon's usage rate is significantly higher than Ekeler's, and the backup's numbers should skew toward the mean in an expanded role. Furthermore, defenses tend to key on Gordon.

But the Chargers should adjust the scheme based on available personnel and their skill sets.

More often than not, offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt's system utilizes Ekeler in 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers). Gordon aligns in more traditional looks with a fullback, Derek Watt, to lead the way at times. Gordon plays in certain 11 personnel packages as well, but Ekeler provides an opportunity to open up the offense instead of facing more aggressive defenses and stacked boxes.

A basic look shows Los Angeles ranked 10th in passing offense compared to 15th in rushing yards.

The team's personnel dictates a shift away from Gordon with Ekeler as a larger part of its approach. Last season, the Chargers tied for 15th in 11 personnel usage, according to Sharp Football Stats. Eighteen teams ran the ball out of 11 personnel more than the Chargers. Whisenhunt called a higher percentage (18) out of 22 personnel (two backs, two tight ends and one wide receiver) than any other offense.

Putting wide receivers Keenan Allen, Mike Williams and Travis Benjamin on the field the majority of the time with a healthy Hunter Henry at tight end gets the Chargers' full complement of weapons involved. Ekeler isn't the same caliber of runner as Gordon between the tackles, but the undrafted free agent adds more explosive capabilities. Ekeler brings legit 4.4-second speed in the 40-yard dash. He also posted better vertical leap and broad jump numbers than the 2015 first-round draft pick.

The 5'10", 200-pound Ekeler is a slashing runner whose burst makes him instant offense in the team's ground and aerial attacks. Most running backs don't have the speed necessary to stretch a defense horizontally. Today's linebackers and defensive backs fly to the football, so outside tackle runs are difficult to execute. Ekeler's best work comes when he bounces his runs wide.

Kelvin Kuo/Associated Press

The opportunity to get Ekeler out in space and let him work is tantalizing. Last season, Rivers targeted the backup running back 53 times. Ekeler caught only 11 fewer passes than Gordon despite playing nearly 200 fewer snaps, and he has averaged 1.4 more yards per reception over the last two seasons. According to Scott Barrett of Pro Football Focus, running backs are more efficient as receivers than tight ends. Clearly, Ekeler is better in this particular area, including pass blocking.

Los Angeles has room to improve last year's 11th-ranked offense and can do so even without a Pro Bowl back.

The lone concern in moving on from Gordon and making Ekeler the featured back is whether the latter can hold up over an entire season, though the former has only played a full 16-game slate once in four years.

Financially, a decision to move on makes complete sense because the $10 million or more spent on a devalued position can be used elsewhere. First, Los Angeles can recoup assets, likely a draft pick or two. Second, the Chargers will roll over the $5.6 million Gordon is set to make this season toward next year's salary cap. Finally, Ekeler is a restricted free agent after this season, and he'll cost the team less with a first- or second-round tender than Gordon is set to make in the final year of his current deal.

A concerted effort to end the contractual impasse makes little sense for the Chargers from personnel and financial perspectives. Is the team better with Gordon on the roster? Absolutely. Quality depth is never a bad thing. But Ekeler is a future featured back, and the Chargers should capitalize on his ascent.

           

Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.

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