Los Angeles Chargers Position Review: Running Back
The 73rd annual Reese’s Senior Bowl wrapped up its festivities Saturday afternoon with the National Team defeating the American Team 20-10. We all know what that means. Chargers fans rejoice, it’s officially upon us, it’s draft season!
As NFL draft boards begin to take shape it’s time to continue our position review series. This week let’s look at the Los Angeles Chargers running back room and identify two positives and two negatives, analyzing the group on their 2021 performance.
Positive One: Super Star Fire Power
Entering the league in 2017 as an undrafted free agent, Chargers running back Austin Ekeler has been viewed as a quality backup/change of pace back up to this point in his career. After spending his first three seasons behind Melvin Gordon, he finally got his shot as an RB1 in 2020. Nagging injuries held the former Western Colorado product back a bit when first given the starting nod but Ekeler bounced back with a vengeance this past season. In 2021, Ekeler started a career-high 16 games and emphatically established himself as one of the premier backs in the NFL. They say numbers don’t lie. When looking at Ekeler’s numbers from last year, they paint a beautiful picture.
Ekeler amassed 1,558 all-purpose yards during 2021. That mark ranks third amongst running backs and was the seventh most amongst all NFL position players. The most interesting part about this number for Ekeler is how he got his yards. Despite being severely underrated in general, Ekeler does get credit for being one of the best receivers coming out of the backfield. Last season, Ekeler did most of his damage on the ground, racking up a career-high 911 rushing yards (NFL Rank: 12th). If you think that took away from his ability to impact the passing game, you’d be mistaken. Ekeler led all running backs with 647 receiving yards. That’s 99 more than the next closest player in Cordarrelle Patterson and 180 more than Najee Harris who ranks third on that list. That’s quality production and should establish Ekeler as one of the game’s best
Positive Two: Ability To Score Touchdowns
Even more impressive than Ekeler’s ability to pick up yardage last season was his ability to cap off drives with touchdowns. Ekeler finished with 12 scores on the ground (NFL Rank: 5th) and eight through the air (Position Rank: 1st) for a grand total of 20. That’s the same number of touchdowns as Los Angeles Rams receiver Cooper Kupp and Indianapolis Colts running back Jonathan Taylor. Both are considered front runners to earn All-Pro honors. No position player scored more than 20 touchdowns in 2021. In fact, since Ekeler joined the NFL in 2017 only five other players have reached or surpassed that threshold. Todd Gurley (23) did it during his All-Pro season in 2018. Aaron Jones (23) and Derrick Henry (21) reached it the following year while Alvin Kamara (22) and Davante Adams (20) did the same in 2020. That’s elite company.
Negative One: Lack of Quality Backup
As good as Ekeler performed last season, nobody can do it by themselves in this league. This especially rings true for a physical position like running back. I believe Ekeler proved he has the goods to produce as a feature back at this level. Still, playing 65 percent of the offensive snaps last season is not a sustainable business model if the Chargers hope to get the most out of their versatile playmaker. The reason Ekeler saw that number of snaps is mainly because the Bolts lack I viable backup option.
Los Angeles selected Justin Jackson in the seventh round of the 2018 draft. Despite posting career highs across the board in 2021 (Rush Yds. 364, Rush TDs 2, Rec. Yds. 178), Jackson has yet to play in a complete 16-game, now 17-game, season. Although he has flashed some ability when on the field, Jackson has not shown the ability to consistently stay healthy. With minimal production and a history of injuries, it would be surprising to see Jackson return to the fold next year.
Joshua Kelley was a 2020 fourth-round pick that saw some decent playing time as a rookie early in the year but was ostracized by the coaching staff the second half of the season after demonstrating some ball security issues. Kelley fumbled in consecutive games from Week 3 to Week 4 and has not been given the chance to redeem himself since. The former UCLA Bruin only logged 153 total snaps in 2021, a significant drop off from the 405 snaps he saw as a rookie. Could Kelley emerge as a quality backup eventually? Sure, but it’s unlikely it will be with the Chargers since the Bolts also took another running back in the 2021 draft.
The Bolts drafted Larry Rountree last year with their sixth-round selection and the former Missouri Tiger seems to have won over the coaching staff despite having a relatively unproductive year. Rountree carried the ball 36 times for 87 yards last season. An abysmal 2.4 yards per carry. One thing Rountree deserves a ton of credit for is having the best touchdown celebration by a Chargers player last season. Who could forget that gem of a clip? Now if Rountree’s future is predicated on his dancing skills his future as an NFL player is extremely bright. All jokes aside, the guy hasn’t put enough quality tape together to justify a ruling one way or the other. He has plenty of time to put a productive offseason together to become a contributing factor next season.
Negative Two: Lack of Short Yardage Specialist
If the Chargers want to live up to their Super Bowl aspirations next season the team needs to find a more physical runner to complement Ekeler’s playstyle. Ekeler is an incredibly strong player and has earned the nickname “pound for pound” from his teammates for a reason. Despite his superhuman strength, Ekeler’s games revolves around his elusiveness and often contorts his body in a way where he doesn’t absorb a lot of contact from the defender. Given his playstyle, the Chargers often went to Kelley or Rountree in short-yardage situations which saw harrowing results. Kelley’s fumble as he attempted to jump the pile in Week 15 matchup against the Kansas City Chiefs stands out.
With Ekeler atop the depth chart, the Bolts don’t need a guy to get them four yards per carry. What they need is a one-cut, downhill runner who is extremely physical at the point of contact. A player that can knock the wind out of opposing defenses and is reliable enough to give Ekeler consistent breaks throughout a ball game. A guy who never goes down on first contact and seemingly always falls forward for a gain. Even if he only gets a couple of yards a carry, that’s fine. Forcing opposing defenses to tackle a more physical ball carrier from time to time will take a toll and just increase Ekeler’s efficiency when he gets his touches.