Los Angeles Chargers Running Back Outlook
The Los Angles Chargers running back committee will look for a bounce-back year following an underwhelming 2020 campaign.
Fully recovered from his hamstring injury, Austin Ekeler is eager to re-establish himself as one of the league’s most explosive playmakers. He is an elusive ball carrier who runs with tremendous strength and seemingly always falls forward. Ekeler is just as capable of making an impact in the passing game, serving as a dynamic receiving threat out of the backfield. He will be a crucial part of the Chargers offense this season under new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi. Fans should expect to see a large dose of the Ekeler air guitar celebration.
Justin Jackson enters his fourth professional season and faces a “prove-it year” with his current contract set to expire in 2022. Jackson has had a tough time staying healthy and has only appeared in 16 games over the past two years. His recent injuries are a bit concerning but he has flashed potential when healthy. Jackson’s career yards per carry average of 4.9 is extremely promising. Still, if Jackson hopes to be a part of the future in Los Angeles, he will have to put together a complete season.
2020 fourth-round selection Joshua Kelley scored the Chargers’ first touchdown last season but was unable to keep up the momentum. After fumbling in consecutive games against the Panthers and Buccaneers, Los Angeles’ former coaching staff drastically reduced his playing time. Kelley logged just nine snaps in the last five games and was a healthy scratch twice. Growing pains are a given for a young running back transitioning into the NFL but the former UCLA product was simply denied the opportunity to grow last season. This is essentially his rookie year 2.0 and he deserves another shot to prove he can develop into a quality player in this league.
Kalen Ballage signed to the practice squad following Ekeler’s injury in Week 4 and finished the year with decent numbers. He appeared in eight games with a pair of starts, totaling 290 rushing yards and three scores. Ballage is now headed to Pittsburgh after signing a one-year $920,000 contract with the Steelers this offseason.
The Chargers struggled mightily running the football in 2020 and somehow still managed to finish as a top ten overall offense. Quarterback Justin Herbert was amazing in his rookie season, to say the least. Still, the Bolts must develop a consistent running game if they hope to get the most out of their young signal-caller. The good news is the rushing numbers from last season should be fairly easy to surpass.
Among all NFL teams last season, Los Angeles ran the ninth-most rushing plays but unfortunately experienced very little success. The Bolts averaged 111.5 yards per game (18th in the NFL) and only totaled 12 rushing touchdowns (26th in the NFL). Their 3.83 yards per rush attempt ranked as the third-worst mark in the league.
Los Angeles Chargers Running Back Outlook
Last year’s lack of production doesn’t all fall on the shoulders of the running backs. A lot of the struggles can be accredited to poor offensive line play and a dysfunctional coaching staff that seemed to never be on the same page. The offensive line has been dramatically revamped this offseason and the new Brandon Staley-led coaching staff is taking over. The Chargers letting Ballage walk in free agency hints that the new staff has a lot of faith in the current running backs already on the roster. With that being said, they don’t have a definitive backup behind Ekeler and could use a bigger back to take over on short-yardage situations. Let’s take a look at some prospects that could be brought in to compliment the running back room.
The Chargers still do not have a starting left tackle or outside cornerback opposite of Michael Davis. Addressing these two positions must be the top priority for general manager Tom Telesco. In the best-case scenario, the Bolts fill these holes within the first two rounds of the draft. Beyond that, the team could benefit from some depth at edge rusher and safety. Plus, they should consider using their later picks on some players who could contribute on special teams. With the running backs currently on the roster, drafting another one would be a waste of a pick. ESPECIALLY, since the team has had a lot of success with undrafted players, i.e. Ekeler, Davis, and Antonio Gates.
If the Chargers are looking for some physicality at the running back position Ben Mason out of Michigan should be their guy. Mason is a former linebacker turned fullback and he runs the football deliberately looking for contact. Los Angeles does have blocking fullback Gabe Nabers on the roster but personally, I think Mason would be an upgrade. Mason is an incredible blocker in his own right and plays with tremendous vision. The biggest difference between the two is Mason’s ability as a short-yardage/red zone threat. The former Wolverine finished with seven rushing touchdowns as a sophomore in 2018. Mason could also be a fit as the team’s blocking tight end.
Another running back for the Bolts to consider is former Cincinnati Bearcat Gerrid Doaks. Standing 6-foot-0 tall and weighing 230-pounds, Doaks fits the bill of the big, bruising running back that Los Angeles needs. He runs with balance and strength, shows good hands out of the backfield, and is solid in pass protection. During his college career, Doaks flashed big-play potential but was unable to do so on a consistent basis. He has the potential to be an extremely versatile back up running back and possibly the latest undrafted rookie to make the Chargers.