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Austin Ekeler can’t be the only solution for the Chargers at running back

Austin Ekeler can't be the only solution for the Chargers at running back
Photo Credit: USA Today

On Friday, the Los Angeles Chargers announced that they signed running back Austin Ekeler to a four-year, 24.5-million-dollar contract. With his signing, it seems more and more likely that Melvin Gordon, the Chargers former star player, will not return to the team in 2020. Under most circumstances, losing a player of that caliber would be cause for concern. However, many people believe that Ekeler, who has been Gordon’s backup since 2017, will be a more than adequate replacement. This belief has been furthered by Gordon’s poor play at times last season, especially immediately after his return from injury. However, Ekeler can’t replace Gordon by himself. While he is a talented and versatile player, our metric’s here at PFN indicate that he was worse as a runner than Gordon was and was, in fact, one of the least efficient running backs in the NFL in 2019.

Comparing Ekeler and Gordon’s statistics

Ekeler and Gordon both played intermittently last season, Ekeler because of his role as a backup and Gordon because of a knee injury that hampered him for most of the season. As a result, their rushing statistics look very similar on paper, as you can see in the chart below:

Rushing Yards Yards Per Carry Rushing Touchdowns
Ekeler 557 4.2 3
Gordon 612 3.8 8


Considering the circumstances that both players were subject to, those statistics seem relatively solid. Nothing spectacular, but reasonable given the difficulties they faced. However, PFN’s Offensive Share Metric (OSM), which measures how responsible a player was for their offensive production, regardless of the situations they were in, tells a different story. Last season, Gordon received an overall grade of 10.8, 39th in the NFL among the 48 qualifying running backs. However, in comparison to Ekeler’s grade, Gordon’s 2019 performance looks incredible. Ekeler’s overall grade for the 2019 season was 8.22, the second-worst received by any running back in 2019, implying that, although his statistics were adequate, he did not contribute much to their production.

Explaining why Ekeler’s grade was so low

Ekeler’s low grade is primarily the result of one, simple flaw: a failure to take advantage of favorable situations. When he was on the field, opposing defenses only showed eight or more defenders in the box 10.61% of the time, one of the lowest percentages in the NFL last season. Considering Ekeler’s reputation as a receiving threat, that number probably does not come as much of a surprise. Stacking the box against him doesn’t make strategic sense.

However, despite facing limited resistance, Ekeler’s statistics were not nearly as spectacular as they should have been. As a starting point, let’s look at his efficiency rating. The metric has a fancy name but is relatively simple conceptually. In short, it is the average number of yards a player ran in terms of physical distance for each statistical yard they gained on the field. The higher the rating, the less efficient the running back was. And Ekeler’s rating was particularly high at 4.4, the fourth highest of any running back in 2019. In other words, he needed to run 4.4 yards for every yard he actually gained, which is surprising given how much room he should have had to run.

That rating isn’t the only evidence of Ekeler’s inefficiencies as a runner, either. He also spent an average of 3.09 seconds behind the line of scrimmage after taking the handoff from his quarterback, the second-longest average among qualifying players. The combination of these factors shows that, in the face of little to no resistance, Ekeler was indecisive, causing him to miss out on opportunities that other, more efficient running backs might have been able to take advantage of.

Ekeler can still be a valuable part of the Chargers offense

I want to clarify that I am not suggesting that Ekeler has no purpose as a running back in the Chargers offense. He is an excellent receiver, ending the 2019 season with 993 receiving yards and eight touchdowns. That touchdown total led all running backs in 2019, and the yardage total was second only to Christian McCaffrey, who had a near-MVP caliber season. But unlike McCaffrey, Ekeler hasn’t shown that he can be a consistent, every-down runner.

Los Angeles’ head coach, Anthony Lynn, appears to recognize this fact as well. During a press conference at the NFL Scouting Combine, he was quoted saying that he likes Ekeler “in a tandem role” because it allows him to move Ekeler around the offense, utilizing him at a variety of different positions. More pointedly, Lynn said outright that he needs Ekeler “with another guy”.

As you can probably guess, I think that attitude makes a lot of sense. Ekeler is a subpar runner, and asking players to fill roles that they are poorly suited for can not only hamper their statistics but is also a surefire way to lose games. Los Angeles needs to find someone to compliment him in their backfield, in the same way that Mark Ingram complemented Alvin Kamara in New Orleans two years ago. That player could be Gordon, or Justin Jackson, who played reasonably well in a limited capacity while Gordon was injured, or someone else entirely. Whoever it is, the Chargers will need to pair Austin Ekeler with a more proficient downhill running back, allowing him to fill the role he is actually good at.

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