Who should be the Los Angeles Chargers running back going into the 2020 season, as the Chargers look to move from Dignity Health Sports Park to the new SoFi stadium in 2020.
The Los Angeles Chargers finished off the 100th season of the NFL with a record of 5-11, good enough for last in the AFC West. On paper, this team showed a lot of promise at the beginning of the season. Especially in the running back position with Melvin Gordon healthy, where if it wasn’t for injury the prior season, he could have rushed for a 1,000 yards.
Austin Ekeler finished his 2018 season with 554 yards, and 3 touchdowns verses Gordon’s 10 touchdowns for the 2018 season.
“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.”- Philip Rivers via BRENT SOBLESK (Bleacher Report)
Melvin Gordon started the 2019 season playing in week 5 against the Denver Broncos, averaging 2.6 yards a carry, with a total of 31 yards. Gordon played through the entire 2019 season only averaging 3.8 yards per carry, carrying the ball 162 times, with eight touchdowns. Gordon’s total rushing yards for 2019 were 612 yards. This was a decline in productivity compared to the 2018 season where he was putting up Pro Bowl caliber numbers prior to his MCL sprain in week 12.
With the low productivity of Gordon during the 2019 season mixed with Gordon’s hold out for the first 64 days of the 2019 season, it allows for the question to be asked, who is the better of the two backs for the Chargers?
While Melvin Gordon was out Austin Ekeler was showing promise and was showing signs of having a good year, with more touches and being used more as an every down back verses being used as a situational down back.
Austin Ekeler rushed for 557 total yards, averaged 4.6 yards per carry on 132 carries, and three touchdowns for the 2019 season. If he had not missed the week 15 game against the Kansas City Chiefs with a concussion, he definitely would of added to his numbers, given that the Chiefs at that point were still ranked as having one of the worst run defenses in the NFL.
Melvin Gordon and Ekeler will be free agents in 2020, which leaves the Chargers with the question of who to re-sign or to re-sign both. With Philip Rivers gone due to free agency, it leaves room for the Chargers to consider re-signing Gordon.
Gordon has expressed he’d love to stay and be a Charger, but with Austin Ekeler and backup running back Justin Jackson showing promise, the Chargers will have to make a decision. Gordon does have the stats and numbers on his side to make a case for a new higher contract but with injuries and low productivity this season, as well as emerging productivity from the other backs, is Gordon worth the money?
So to answer the question of who should be the Chargers number one back, if you look at the stats according to Austin Gayle (@PFF_AustinGayle), Ekeler edges Gordon on several statistics which lean towards the case that he should be THE guy.
Ekeler has a 35% early-down success rate on runs to Gordon’s 26%. On all runs, Ekeler has a 38% rate and Gordon has a 28% rate. On success on all targets, Ekeler has a 45% rate to Gordon’s 35% rate, and on the success rate of all opportunities, Ekeler has a 39% rate to Gordon’s 29% rate.
I will give this to Gordon, he gets more touches during any given game then Ekeler. Looking at their total touches over the last two years, Gordon has 595 to Ekeler’s 297, and when Gordon is in the game the defense usually will stack the box more than they will with Ekeler in the backfield.
Given his injury history and his recent holdout, Gordon doesn’t exactly scream durable and reliable. It would seem obvious that if the Chargers are looking for a running back they can count on then they should lean towards Austin Ekeler.
On the other hand, I would say that if the Chargers, wanting to be more successful in their run game, and especially if they pull the offseason miracle of landing Tom Brady for one or two seasons, which is another story, then they should look at a continued split time between Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler if they can afford it.
The reason for my analysis and thoughts on the situation are that the Chargers running game is a more productive running attack when both men are seeing field time.
Gordon is a more powerful running back, but both players have speed and can punish a defense if they get into the open field. However, if Ekleler averaged as many touches as Gordon, he would be a less effective running back. Because of the number of touches Gordon gets, and the fact that defenses have to respect the power of his running game, it opens up a defense for Ekeler when he is in.
The fact that defenses usually put fewer men in the box when Ekeler is in allows for him to find and exploit holes which could contribute to why his percentage numbers are higher than Gordon’s.
For the Chargers to be successful they are going to need a ground attack that is consistent and productive. This is especially important now that Rivers is gone and his replacement still has not been found, which means that Coach Lynn and Offensive Coordinator Shane Steichen need to work on tweaking the offense more to include Gordon and Ekeler as a duo, rather than as two backs looking to get time in a split back field. If they can make it work financially, bringing both backs back and using them to compliment each other would be wise for this offense.