Which Running Back Will Best Compliment Austin Ekeler?
It’s without a doubt that Austin Ekeler is the most dynamic and groundbreaking running back the Los Angeles Chargers have. Their offense doesn’t really have an identity without him. He not only makes the running game move, but also a significant portion of their passing game. However, if you watch enough Chargers football throughout the year, you’ll likely see that the Chargers will require a true complimentary back to Ekeler. While he is a highly efficient player, he is not your typical workhorse kind of running back. Someone else on the roster is going to carve out a significant role as that number two running back – the question is: who?
The eye test and significant statistics will quickly tell you that the second most competent back on the roster is Justin Jackson. He does a little bit of everything on the field well for the Chargers. Inside runs, designed outside runs, making catches underneath and in the flats. Offensive Coordinator Joe Lombardi has even said his well-rounded skillset can match that of Ekeler’s. When you watch Jackson run and make plays in the open field, he feels natural to the position. He feels like he is comfortable in his space, and knows where to put himself to be successful.
That being said, there is a nagging complaint about Jackson because of his inability to stay on the field. He only played nine games last season and has already started this year by missing the start of training camp after being placed on the COVID-19 reserve list. Because Jackson is inactive so frequently, I actually think the best compliment for Ekeler will be Joshua Kelley.
Kelley just simply is the opposite of Ekeler – Kelley is more of a thunder version to Ekeler’s lightning. He mostly makes plays on tough, gritty short-yardage runs. He doesn’t have a lot of open field acceleration, and he’s not about to make a bunch of highly athletic plays. Ekeler often finds himself making the move to the outside to use his speed to beat linebackers or lining up out wide in the slot.
What Kelley does well is finding the first down marker in short situations. He never shies away from contact and knows how to change direction at the line of scrimmage, whether it’s bouncing it outside or finding another hole to go through. He can even make catches when dumped the ball underneath. Although he definitely wouldn’t be my first choice of receiving backs, as he continues to show awkward hand placement on catches and an inability to zoom away from defenders. Not ideal, but he’s not Adrian Peterson‘s level of determent. Kelley is shorter and better built back than Ekeler and Jackson making Kelley the best LeGarrette Blount-esque short-yardage back on the team. We often saw him at UCLA finishing through contact and jumping over the line of scrimmage for a score or a first down.
Nonetheless, Jackson is definitely a weapon that can be utilized in a lot of different spots. He can also just take over as the feature back, should anything happen to Ekeler. Jackson can do a little bit of everything on the football field. He’s a threat in open space after the catch, he makes a ton of outside runs, and he isn’t afraid to run inside. He’s not as contact-friendly as Kelley, but he’s a lot more versatile. Jackson is a lot more of a complete back, and can definitely play a three-down role. It’s really not close though when you look at the professional quality that Jackson brings to the table over Kelley, a player who is actually comfortable with the position.
It really is going to come down to Jackson’s ability to stay healthy and produce consistently. Knowing this team and their injury history at the position, allowing a guy like him to stay on the depth chart and not take a lot of hits regularly is the key to his availability later in the season. The development of rookie Larry Rountree will also be a key thing to look out for this season as well.
The Chargers were looking for offensive production on the ground last season from anywhere they could get it. Herbert led the team in rushing touchdowns, and Kalen Ballage and his 300 yards rushing aren’t even on the roster anymore. Keeping guys healthy and playing the right roles is going to be vital to the Chargers’ success running the ball this year. Here’s to hoping the Chargers are more productive on the ground this season than they were last year, under Anthony Lynn, the former running-back coach turned head coach.