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Can Austin Ekeler be more than just a complementary back?

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Los Angeles Chargers v Denver Broncos Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

Maybe the first running back is more of a bruiser between the tackles and the next guy can beat you to the corner every time if you don’t start leaning that way before the snap.

Sometimes, when you look at the stat sheet, the complementary back is more efficient than the starter. While the starter may average 4.2 yards per carry, the back-up could average 6.3 yards per carry. However, the starter may have that average on 200+ carries while your other guy is sitting at 60 carries.

There are two usual trains of thought when someone sees these numbers:

1.) “It means nothing. The back-up would probably see his average plummet if he received a starting workload”

and 2.) “Well it looks like they should be giving more carries to the back-up because he seems to do more with it.”

If you haven’t guessed it yet, this was the case with Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler prior to the 2018 season.

During his first three seasons, Gordon never averaged more than 4.0 yards per carry. In his dismal 2015 rookie campaign, he carried the ball 184 times and averaged just 3.5 per tote. In ‘16 and ‘17, he increased his average, but both fell just shy of 4.0 at 3.9 each.

In 2018, Gordon looked like a different runner. He only logged 175 carries (he missed four games to injury) but he vaulted his YPC average to 5.1. Finally, his career average was now over that 4.0 threshold.

In Ekeler’s rookie, he only carried the ball 47 times, but averaged 5.5 yards. This past season, he averaged 5.2 on twice as many carries, finishing the year with 107.

Even with this small sample size, you had a vast amount of fans banging the table for Ekeler to receive an increase in touches. Some even went as far as to say that Gordon should be benched for Ekeler!

When I go back and look at the tape, I get it. I didn’t agree with the above statement but I could see how some casual fans could wind up at that conclusion. The offense just seemed to have a little more juice when number 30 stepped on the field. Even as a rookie, you had a little bit more confidence in him at the time compared to when Gordon was running behind the same line.

Hell, there was a point when Pro Football Focus had Ekeler as the #1 running back in the NFL, according to their metrics. By the end of it, Ekeler wasn’t at the top, but he was still pretty dang close.

Just take a gander at some of the other numbers PFF has on the former UDFA:

If a non-educated fan saw all of these graphics, they’d probably feel pretty safe putting money down on Ekeler as the starting back for the Chargers, but they’d obviously be wrong.

He’s been great. Better than great, at times.

But going back to my original query, of which this piece is title: Should Ekeler be given a bigger workload, or should he stay within the boundaries of a complimentary back?

To decide, let’s first paint a picture of his 2018 season.

By the end of the regular season, Ekeler fell just short of 1,000 yards from scrimmage with 954. His rushing and receiving yardage split was almost even as he finished with 554 rushing and 404 receiving. He also rushed for three touchdowns and caught another three, proving just how much of a dual-threat he can be in this offense.

Now let’s dive deeper into his rushing splits and paint a better picture of how and when he’s at his most efficient.

On the season, Ekeler carried the rock 10+ times in four games. In those four games, Ekeler collected:

  • 11 carries - 77 yards, 7.0 avg.
  • 12 - 42, 3.5
  • 13 - 21, 1.2
  • 15 - 66, 4.4

Now here are his numbers when he receives nine or less:

  • 5 - 39, 7.8 avg.
  • 4 - 47, 11.8
  • 8 - 25, 3.1
  • 6 - 15, 2.5
  • 7 - 60, 8.6
  • 3 - 21, 7.0
  • 3 - 19, 6.3
  • 6 - 29, 4.8
  • 5 - 35, 7.0
  • 8 - 58, 7.3

That 10 or more/less split is the difference between Ekeler averaging 4.0 yards per carry or 6.3.

In weeks 7, 14, and 15, Ekeler got the chance to be the starting back for the Chargers and finally show the world what he can do with a full workload. The entire BFTB staff and what seemed like the entire fantasy football were stoked to finally it, as well.

Well....here are Ekeler’s numbers from those three games:

  • Week 7 (Titans): 12 rushes - 42 yards, 3.5 avg.
  • Week 13 (Steelers): 13 rushes - 21 yards, 1.6 avg.
  • Week 14 (Bengals): 15 rushes - 66 yards, 4.4 avg.

Not the best, obviously. The game across the pond against the Titans was FAR closer than you would like, and the same can be said about the week 14 bout with Bengals.

The game against the Steelers was also a hot mess for Ekeler and the offense the entire first half until Justin Jackson came to the rescue. The 2018 seventh-round pick rushed eight times for 63 yards and a momentum-swinging 18-yard touchdown run.

So taking this thing now full-circle: Should Ekeler be given a larger rushing workload, or should he continue to play second-fiddle to Gordon?

I believe the answer isn’t black or white, but somewhere within the gray area. In the small, yet ample, sample size, Ekeler hasn’t performed like you would want from a feature back, but man is he good when he can use those fresh legs.

If you were to list the best offensive weapons on this team, Ekeler would obviously fall behind the likes of Gordon, Allen, Henry, and Mike Williams, but I’d be safe putting him well before a third wide receiver. After all, he can do this:

and this:

At the end of the day, maybe it’s too early to pass the verdict on Ekeler’s ceiling as a NFL running back. Until that time comes, all we get to do is sit back, crack that cold one, and enjoy watching him help this team any way he can.