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Is Austin Ekeler RB2 or WR3? Who cares? Play him

Following a disastrous performance by the receiving unit, should Philip Rivers look to target his running back more?

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Los Angeles Chargers Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

If Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers wanted to retire tomorrow, few fans would bat an eye. The 36-year-old quarterback has been through hell and high water trying to find consistency with the organization since 2004. He’s seen his fair share of highs like the team’s 2006 season where they went 14-2 under head coach Marty Schottenheimer and see plenty of disappointment, like going 14-2 in 2006 and losing in the divisional round of the playoffs to the New England Patriots.

Sunday’s 38-28 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, however, might be one of the final straws. While Rivers might have gone 34 of 51 and threw for over 400 yards along with three touchdowns, that number should be higher. Much higher.

Why isn’t it you ask? Poor receiver play. No, not Keenan Allen. He was consistent once again for the Bolts, hauling in 108 yards and another touchdown. No, not Mike Williams either. The second-year first-rounder showed promise in the second half with his 16.2 average yards per catch against the Chiefs secondary.

Let’s talk about the third receiver spot and the poor performance of both Tyrell Williams and Travis Benjamin. On Sunday, the two combined for three receptions on ten targets for a just nine yards and a touchdown. William’s touchdown came on a four-yard catch at the back of the end zone; it doesn’t mean make up for the mistakes made earlier in the game.

Both Benjamin and Williams consistently dropped passes, failed to convert in space and defeat their defenders in coverage. What sums up their performance overall, however, is a play from the second quarter where Williams beats Chiefs cornerback Stephen Nelson in man coverage and still drops an easy touchdown in the end zone.

No, Williams didn’t have an advantage on Nelson, he blew right past him. No, Rivers didn’t overshoot Williams that might have made it hard to catch, he dropped. A game-changing touchdown that could have put the Chargers down by 1 went right through the hands of Williams.

Thankfully for the receiver, his quarterback was calm enough not to knock him out cold. Most people probably would have.

The current depth chart for the Chargers has Williams and Benjamin as the second and third receivers. That needs to change real quick following Sunday’s action.

Bottom line; the Clemson Williams was drafted to complement Allen’s speed on the outside, not sit on the bench. Both receivers had more snaps than Williams in Sunday’s action. Averaging 54 offensive snaps, the two should split that in half to see how much they should play moving forward.

While Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn has stated he expects to see both players improve, the Chargers need to find a valuable third receiver option. While looking perhaps at free agency or other practice squads, there’s a simple option that should be glaring them in the face.

Play running back Austin Ekeler more and let him catch some balls.

The second-year running back out of Western Colorado State showed his ability to keep drives alive in the open field following his 126 overall yard performance Sunday. The running back was able to demonstrate his ability on the ground but was at his best after the catch.

Averaging 17.4 yards per catch on five receptions and a touchdown, Ekeler is a smooth pass catcher that creates yardage out of the backfield and can make defenders miss at the line of scrimmage. With Melvin Gordon expected to remain the team’s leading rusher moving forward, why not let Ekeler take some snaps from the slot receiver position?

It wouldn’t be the first time this happened.

Last week against the Houston Texans, the New England Patriots multiple times used a double running back set, sending one player out wide and leaving one under center. Several instances, Patriots running back Rex Burkhead would motion inside, sending James White out of the backfield and causing commotion for the Texans unit to defend and allow New England to pick up an opening and keep their drive alive.

In that sense, think of Gordon as Burkhead and Ekeler as White. Defenses won’t be able to pick up on those in enough time, allowing the Chargers offense to find success.

The Chargers are gearing up for a battle on the road against the Buffalo Bills. Their defense was expected to be their bread and butter this season with significant controversy on the offensive side of the ball.

Last weekend didn’t give much hope on that side of the ball either.

The Bills defense allowed 369 total yards against Joe Flacco and the Ravens lackluster offense. In coverage, the Bills secondary allowed over 230 yards through the air and gave up three touchdowns.

This is the same Ravens offense that was shut down by the sub-par Cincinnati Bengals defense Thursday night. Bottom line, the Chargers receivers are budding stars where the Ravens receiving corp are plenty a ton of slot receivers and tight ends hoping Flacco can excel in the dump pass.

The Bolts will need to capitalize on that.

No matter how you play him, it’s safe to say that Ekeler on the field with the Chargers offense is much better than when the team elects to use Williams or Benjamin. It’s the little things such as efficiency and versatility, both important to keep drives alive and offenses on the field.

Last week, multiple times Ekeler lined up on the outside made plays. As fellow BFTB writer Michael Peterson pointed out, there’s little flash to his overall game, but plenty of pizzazz in his results.

Although some would disagree, Peterson brings up a great point. Is Ekeler the team’s most productive back? Heading into week 2, that would be correct. While Gordon is growing as a running back, Ekeler can keep momentum after initial contact and gain the few extra yards. His hands are stronger than Gordon’s and his ability to run routes like a slot receiver make him more versatile.

In the end, the Chargers are a great position with the growing duo heading across the country to Orchard Park, New York. While Gordon should still find himself in the backfield for a majority of snaps, the combination for Benjamin and Williams isn’t the answer. Ekeler could be.

The Bills have been dubbed by many as the worst team in the NFL, making this a must win for the Chargers. Allen is set at one receiver while the good Williams should be slotted at the other.

If Ken Whisenhunt wants to make a statement on how good this Chargers offense can be, Ekeler should be the best option, no matter where you line him up.