Austin Ekeler is one of the NFL‘s most fascinating non-free agents. He also happens to be one of the greatest undrafted NFL players of all time. In the last two years alone, he’s generated more offensive yards (3,195) and touchdowns (38) than (checks notes) any other running back.
A couple weeks ago, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that the Los Angeles Chargers granted Ekeler permission to find a new team through a trade. Ekeler also has expressed interest in remaining with the Chargers “under the right circumstances.” With that in mind, here are four intriguing landing spots for the recently all-world RB — as well as his likely fantasy football value.
Austin Ekeler Trade Predictions
The Chargers are in a uniquely challenging situation, as their franchise is good (or even great) enough to realistically dream of a deep playoff run. However, Ekeler is a key reason why.
Turning 28 this May, he clearly wants and deserves a payday befitting one of the top running backs of this decade. Yet, it’s hard to envision a franchise investing heavily in an aging superstar at a position that frequently witnesses steep talent drop-offs when approaching 30 years old.
So it’s difficult to imagine a rebuilding team trading assets for Ekeler, who has one year remaining on his contract before commanding major guaranteed money. He’s more of a one-year rental to help push a contender over the top — or, in the Chargers’ case, to help make a solid team into a contender.
A major challenge with predicting Ekeler’s landing spot is that there are so few teams with minimal postseason potential. Honestly, the Texans and Cardinals are the only teams that firmly come to mind. Because yes, the Broncos or Raiders could turn things around. The Lions and Bears are on the move. Even the Rams could make one more run (although it’s doubtful).
By my count, 30 teams might be 30% better to reach the playoffs, where Ekeler bumps them to 40% or higher.
In an attempt to keep this interesting and moderately realistic, let’s assume teams with two strong running backs are out of contention. And let’s have a little fun with the possibilities, knowing that if a team trades for him, they might have no intention of paying him at the start of his 2024 age-29 season.
Essentially, these potential landing spots are teams that are desperate enough to go all in on 2023, knowing they might not have the salary cap space, draft capital, and personnel to make a similar push in 2024.
Joining the All-In Saints?
During the latter stages of the Drew Brees era, the Saints were one of the oldest NFL teams with respect to rostered players’ ages. Interestingly, his retirement didn’t change the roster’s overall complexion, in that they began last season as the fourth-oldest squad.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, of course. Older teams can thrive if they have the right guys in the right spots. But New Orleans’ offseason acquisition of Derek Carr is yet another example of the team committing to veteran experience over a youth movement. The 30-year-old Michael Thomas is the Saints’ No. 2 receiver until further notice, and their backfield will feature two 28-year-olds.
And I know what you’re thinking: They just landed Jamaal Williams. Boom, their RB situation is set.
I see it very differently, believing that Carr is at his best when operating as a game manager in a conservative offense led by a strong running game and strong defense. Alvin Kamara might receive a lengthy suspension later this year. Meanwhile, Williams has a career 4.0 yards per carry and is coming off by far the largest workload of his career.
We can celebrate that 16 of Williams’ last 20 touchdowns have come from the 1- or 2-yard line. But we should also rationalize how this Saints squad is a Kamara suspension away from having a sub-middling backfield by NFL starter standards.
Surely, the Saints understand that they have a clear window to win their division in a rebuilding NFC South. But their chances probably will weaken in 2024, as Atlanta and Carolina continue to get stronger — 2023 is their opening.
Adding Ekeler would cement the Saints’ standing as the team to beat in their division, and as a serious Super Bowl contender, with or without Kamara down the stretch. Fantasy-wise, this move would crush Williams’ near-term fantasy value while making Ekeler and Kamara more streamers than automatic fantasy starters, with Ekeler possessing the highest PPR ceiling.
One Last Hoorah for the Titans?
Honestly, I thought the Titans would have traded Derrick Henry already. Believed they’d see the writing on the wall in an AFC South that the Jaguars have quickly taken over. Trusted they’d unload their best asset for draft capital with an eye toward 2024 and 2025.
Or, maybe they’ll do it after the draft dust settles. Who knows.
But if Tennessee keeps Henry, it’s a sign they still believe they’re a playoff team — that a strong defense and running game can help overcome major question marks in their passing attack.
As we all know, Henry dominates on the ground and generally remained an afterthought through the air. Imagine a backfield where he and Ekeler combine for 450-500 touches, with Ekeler returning to the receiving-specialist roots of his early days alongside Melvin Gordon III in L.A. This tandem would instantly operate as the league’s top backfield, and the Titans could push Jacksonville for divisional dominance.
Fantasy-wise, Henry probably would remain a 16+ touch RB and primary goal-line option. On a relatively pass-averse team, both of these guys would be “safe” weekly fantasy starters.
The Missing Piece for the Jaguars?
Consider the media swarm if Ekeler and the Chargers are choosing between Tennessee and Jacksonville. If he goes to the Titans, the battle for the AFC South title becomes even fiercer. But if he goes to the Jaguars . . . well, that could put Jacksonville squarely on the Super Bowl map.
Teams must walk a fine line between “win now” and “plan for later.” Because when later comes, they might not have the team they thought they’d have.
Surely, the Jags are in the driver’s seat this year as an ascending franchise with youth and talent on their side. However, they’ll need to pay Trevor Lawrence, perhaps Travis Etienne Jr., and other key cogs after the 2024 season. Now is their time, and they’ll need to move quickly before cap space becomes a bigger issue for years to come.
Jacksonville has good enough draft capital to secure Ekeler if they’re willing to go all in. As a bonus, they can figure out how to extend him in a front-loaded contract with minimal liabilities beyond 2024, ensuring that he partners with Etienne for (perhaps) multiple seasons.
Fantasy-wise, Ekeler’s presence clearly would turn this into a split backfield, with he and Etienne perhaps locking in 200-240 touches apiece. The more youthful Etienne would hold an edge as the more efficient runner, while, of course, Ekeler would enjoy continued PPR value. Both guys realistically could be top-18 fantasy running backs in a top-10 offense.
Austin Ekeler Market Value, Career Stats, and More
Ekeler’s value couldn’t be much higher with respect to proven productivity. But his age and contract situation present risk for teams trying to justify trading valuable assets for a guy who might be a one-year rental.
But as the offseason continues, teams’ upgrade opportunities will diminish. And that diminishment might lead some franchises to take a closer look at Ekeler.
Ekeler’s Career Stats
- Rushing Attempts: 811
- Rushing Yards: 3,727
- Rushing Touchdowns: 34
- Receptions: 389
- Receiving Yards: 3,448
- Receiving Touchdowns: 29
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