Chargers Free Agency Preview: Running Back Options

Top Shots 2021: Best of Austin Ekeler

Chargers Free Agency Preview: Running Back Options

The Chargers had a very dynamic offense during the 2021 season, like many teams though they have their weaknesses. One of the glaring issues for them was the lack of a second option at running back. They obviously had their number one option in Austin Ekeler that played exceptionally and was second in the NFL in touchdowns. He really silenced anyone that said he could not be a workhorse running back, by leading the NFL in receiving yards and being that do it all running back for this team. The unfortunate part about it all is that there was no one that could back him up consistently. It was a cause for major concern that absolutely needs to be addressed this offseason.

Here in this article, we are going to dive into the different options of free-agent running backs that can back up Ekeler and provide a new dimension to this offense – which is something that general manager Tom Telesco spoke about during his press conference at the Combine. I am going to go through three different options that I believe are realistic. I will start with the one that I would be fine with and eventually and with my number one option. Before I start, believe it or not but Melvin Gordon will not be on my list

Option 1: James Conner

I would be happy with this addition. Conner had a great season and really thrived and some of the areas that the Chargers struggled with. He was dynamic in space and was able to break tackles seemingly every time he needed to. He was 2nd in the NFL in touchdowns and was also a threat out of the backfield. He scored 15 touchdowns and it seemed as if he was scoring every single week. Many of these touchdowns that he was scoring came in the red zone, getting a good short-yardage/goal line running back would be huge for this team.

However, while he has many positives, there would still be a few causes for concerns from me. Conner only averaged 3.7 yards per carry. I do chalk some of that up to the shall we say interesting offense that the Cardinals would play at times. Conner has not made a ton of money across his career and coming off one of his best seasons, you would almost guarantee that he is going to be searching for that big contract. Lastly, a big concern I have for him is the mileage, it may not seem like a lot be he has averaged around 215 touches per season across the past 4 seasons. If I am Telesco, I am either looking for a young, explosive back, or a proven running back that can split out wide at times and share the field with Ekeler. That being said, there aren’t really any better options in terms of adding a pure and experienced runner than Conner.

Option 2: Cordarrelle Patterson

This one would be a no-brainer for me, especially if the Chargers elect to not bring back Andre RobertsPatterson is best known for being one of the best kick returners in NFL history. While his return game would be welcomed, I am most excited about what he could add to the offense. Patterson has had a difficult time finding his place within an NFL offense which has led him to bounce around the league from team to team, that was until this past season. Patterson set career highs across the board, including rushing yards, receiving yards, rushing touchdowns, and receiving touchdowns. Patterson was 2nd in the NFL in receiving yards by a running back, trailing only his potential teammate Ekeler. A big deal about that is he was also 2nd in the league in yards per reception at 10.5. He has experience as a receiver being 6’4 and he can easily split out wide if needed. The obvious connection with head coach Brandon Staley is also huge.

There are always going to be negatives or concerns when it comes to a free agent, especially when it is a running back. Patterson is 30 years old, which with how the NFL is now, is old for a running back. This isn’t as big of a concern because he doesn’t have the typical mileage of an NFL running back since he never had consistent production within an offense until this season. The financial side of things for Patterson is going to be very interesting due to his age. But in adding him I wouldn’t necessarily look at him as a backup because he would be an integral part of the team. He’s not a pure runner, but he would provide a lot of versatility to the offense and theoretically solve their YAC problem.

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Option 3: D’Ernest Johnson

This is the one, I would be ecstatic if the Chargers were to bring Johnson over to back up Ekeler. Johnson is a restricted free agent so the Browns could bring him back if they want, but they have two expensive studs at running back already. Many are anticipating that they are going to let Johnson walk. All I will say, do not look at his 40 time at his pro day, and instead, look at his film and how explosive he is within a game.

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Johnson had 3 games this past season where he was the primary back, in those games he totaled 66 carries for 368 yards (5.57 yards per carry average), and two touchdowns. He showcased his game-breaking ability as he racked up 16 runs of ten yards per more (which was more than his teammate Kareem Hunt). Perhaps most importantly, are Johnson’s finishes in the yards per contact per attempt and forced missed tackles department. He finished fifth in the league in yards after contact per attempt according to PFF’s charting, which shows it wasn’t just him running behind a good line or in a good scheme, and 28th in missed tackles forced despite his limited workload.

I am not sure what else you would be looking for in someone that is going to come in as a backup. Obviously, if I was going by preference without having to look at the price, it would be Patterson. However, I want Johnson because he is going to be very affordable. He is also explosive with the ball in his hands and does not have a lot of mileage on his body. He would be the perfect complement to Ekeler that would take an immense amount of pressure off of him.

There are others that I would be happy with, these are the 3 that I found to be realistic while also slightly aggressive to be serious in filling that role. I would say, I do not want Saquon Barkley unless it was somehow for a 6th round pick. He gets injured too often and has an expensive price tag coming into the last year of his contract. I would be happy with Chase Edmonds but I believe that the Cardinals will let Conner walk and will keep Edmonds.


Top Shots 2021: Best of Austin Ekeler – Mike Nowak