It seemed like every other time Austin Ekeler touched the ball last year, there was a thought that popped into my mind. I didn’t give this thought much acknowledgement as it seemed to get crazier the longer it lingered. But it kept coming back.
When the former UDFA out of Western State took the first carry of his career 35 yards to the house against the Eagles, that was the spark.
When he started catching passes down the field on wheel routes and tip-toeing sidelines for touchdowns against the Jaguars, the flames were fanned.
These uncomfortable feelings persisted throughout the rest of the 2017 season and are still here at this very moment. For those that are confused, here is the question I’ve been wrangling with for the entire offseason: Is Melvin Gordon really the best running back on the team?
I know, I know. It’s pretty crazy to try and fathom such a thing, but it isn’t that much of a stretch from reality. When Ekeler is in the game, he becomes a real spark-plug for the offense. He hits his holes with eye-popping quickness, sticking his foot in the ground at a moment’s notice to get north and south.
In the latest tilt against the Saints, Ekeler was his usual efficient-self. He maximized his limited attempts on the ground while becoming a reliable dump-off target for Rivers. That’s the type of back we want in the game, no matter if it’s Ekeler, Gordon, or even rising UDFA Detrez Newsome.
And if you haven’t guessed already yet...
RB Austin Ekeler
Ekeler touched the ball seven times on the opening drive, alone. He started the night by breaking off a 21-yard run up the left sideline. His next run went for another 12 yards as he followed FB Derek Watt off left tackle, showing some patience as his blockers set up a nice lane. His next two runs went for six and nine yards, respectively. If you blinked, you may have wondered how the Chargers got into the Saints’ red zone so quickly.
On the night, Ekeler collected just nine touches, three of those being catches, but turned those into 63 total yards and averaged a stellar 7.0 yards per touch.
With TE Hunter Henry out for the season, I instantly started pounding the table for OC Ken Whisenhunt and the offense to start using more two-RB, three-WR sets to maximize the amount of playmakers on the field. Can you imagine a package with Gordon, Ekeler, Keenan Allen, Tyrell, and Mike Williams all on the field at the same time? Come on, son.
LB Kyzir White/S Derwin James
I couldn’t decide between White and James because, quite frankly, they’ve both been phenomenal this preseason. To no one’s surprise, they’ve both played their way into a starting spot with this defense. Earlier today, head coach Anthony Lynn finally confirmed that James will start week 1, allowing fans to breathe a long sigh of relief.
White, on the other hand, may not “start” according to their base defense package but he will most definitely have a role as the nickel/dime linebacker. Due to the mass volume of plays they spend in these packages, White should be considered a starter with the rest of the defense in the same vein that CB Desmond King is essentially a starter as the team’s slot corner.
I couldn’t be more excited about these two players as they add a level of versatility that allows this defense to be extremely multiple without needing to sub a number of players every time they get a new look from the offense. One aspect in particular that I am stoked about is just how well these two match-up with opposing play-makers, specifically the rash of dual-threat running backs across the league.
NT Brandon Mebane
Mebane just ain’t for the middle of this defensive interior. Once a free agent signing that got fans excited for a run-stuffing presence next to DT Corey Liuget, the former-member of those historic Seattle Seahawk defenses is, and has been, on the wrong side of 30 years old for some time now.
In this preseason alone, Mebane has been constantly moved around against his will. Yes he is tasked with taking on double-teams but it is fairly evident he no longer has the strength in his lower haunches to buckle down against interior offensive linemen.
What makes matters worse is the supposed depth behind Mebane at the 1-technique. DT Justin Jones was drafted in the third round of the 2018 draft to possibly be the heir-apparent but even he doesn’t quite fit the bill for what the team needs. At 6-foot-3 and 310 pounds, he is the next biggest body that the team has other than DT Bijohn Jackson, a UDFA out of Arkansas who tips the scales at 339 pounds. Unfortunately, Jackson has been close to non-existent this preseason. The only other listed “nose tackle” on the roster is Damion Square who finds himself closer to 290 than 300-310.
LB Jatavis Brown
I mentioned some of these views in my “Thoughts” piece following Saturday’s game, but they warrant another go-round due to my frustration about the subject.
Brown was a flashy player during his rookie year. Splash plays were the theme of his game and they always came when the team needed one the most. It was obviously hard not to get excited about him and his future, until last year, that is.
In his sophomore campaign, Brown suffered a slump that stemmed from a combination of a nagging foot-injury and the new playbook from Gus Bradley that had the defense change from a 3-4 to a 4-3 front. After the 2017 season came to an end, most just chalked up the decline in play as a loss and chose to look forward to 2018 where Brown would be able to heal up, get a handle on the playbook, and get back to his old self.
Unfortunately, this hasn’t been the case up to this point.
Brown got most of his run in Saturday’s game with the backups and third-stringers. You would expect Brown to look pretty good as he cleans up against lesser competition. This also wasn’t the case. During the last third of the game, Brown missed a handful of tackles and was visibly outplayed by the likes of Hayes Pullard, who quietly went from one of the worst graded players by PFF to the Chargers’ #1 rated defensive player this preseason.
Hayes Pullard has the highest grade on the #Chargers defense this preseason (86.0) . He has given up 1 reception in 28 coverage snaps as well as added 6 run-stops.— PFF LA Chargers (@PFF_Chargers) August 27, 2018
If Pullard can continue to produce at this level the Chargers have a chance at being the top #NFL defense. pic.twitter.com/xXFu4YfrV6