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Is Austin Ekeler a bargain?

Should his “ek-stension” be looked at as a potential value steal?

Los Angeles Chargers Training Camp Photo by Kevin Sullivan/Orange County Register via Getty Images

Set to be a restricted free agent, the LA Chargers extended running back Austin Ekeler to a four-year, $24.5 million contract extension on March 6. The deal guaranteed Ekeler $13.75 million at signing, including his $6 million signing bonus, his $1.5 million 2020 base salary, his $4.25 million 2021 base salary, and a $2 million roster bonus.

Should Ekeler remain on the team after 2021, he has a $6.5 million and a $7.25 million cap hit in each of the next two seasons. Does that make Ekeler a “bargain”?

One of the most interesting things about running backs who are similar to Austin Ekeler is that the NFL doesn’t want them. Not to be harsh, I’m just the messenger who has looked over the history of backs like Ekeler in the league.

At his 2017 pro day, Ekeler drew league attention — not easy to do when you play at Western Colorado — after he ran a 4.43 in the 40-yard dash, posted a 40.5” vertical, and leapt 128 inches in the broad jump. This would be phenomenal if he was 5’11 and 225 pounds, or if he was a 6’1, 215 pound cornerback, but Ekeler came in at 5’9 and 195 pounds.

Coaches who now had him on their radar could turn to his college stats:

  • 1,049 rushing yards a a freshman
  • 1,676 rushing yards and 417 receiving yards as a sophomore (with 14 touchdowns, but also five fumbles)
  • 1,637 rushing yards and 402 yards as a junior, in one fewer game, with 21 touchdowns and one fumble
  • 1,495 rushing yards, 236 receiving yards, 18 touchdowns and one fumble as a senior

Again there was nothing to dislike about Ekeler’s stats — except that it came in Division II.

Almost perfect pro day numbers, “except that...”

Almost perfect college stats, “except that...”

And then Ekeler had to accept that he wouldn’t be drafted. The Chargers signed him to a three-year, $1.66 million contract after he went unselected. But there was almost immediate hope that LA had signed a steal when they got Ekeler. Noted Travis Wakeman at Bolt Beat:

As I just mentioned, this team has a huge opportunity at running back. The Chargers have six running backs on the roster and assuming they’ll keep four on the final roster, Ekeler would just have to beat out two guys this summer.

Not only do I think that could happen, I expect it to happen. This kid is going to surprise you from the first time he touches the ball in a preseason game. If you get out to Costa Mesa this summer, the guy wearing the No.3 jersey is going to catch your eye.

Back in April, Austin told me, “Western State Colorado University was the only team that believed in my ability to play running back, and that is all I needed. That’s all I need now, is one team to believe in me.” Well, one team has shown a belief in him and soon, he’ll make believers out of its fans.

Not enough of a “steal” for them to guarantee his place on the roster by drafting him obviously, but to his credit, general manager Tom Telesco has gotten at least 35 games out of all seven players he took in 2017 with the exception of second rounder Forrest Lamp, who remains in competition to start.

Ekeler made the team and by midseason had supplanted veteran Branden Oliver in the main seat behind Melvin Gordon. In Week 10 of his rookie season, Ekeler ran 10 times for 42 yards and caught five of five targets for 77 yards and two touchdowns in a 20-17 loss to the top-ranked defense of the Jacksonville Jaguars. (He also lost a fumble in that game.) Clearly something special was developing in the passing game however.

From Week 1 to Week 13 of his rookie season, Ekeler caught 26 of 31 targetes for 273 yards and three touchdowns. He wasn’t just catching everything but 8.8 yards per target is phenomenal efficiency for most players, but especially an undrafted rookie who played at Western Colorado and doesn’t look like most backs in the league.

Consider that from 2010-present, the only running backs under 5’11 and under 200 pounds to be drafted above the fourth round are C.J. Spiller, Jahvid Best, Isaiah Pead, and LaMichael James. Not a stellar track record.

Once you get past the third, where no backs of this size were drafted in the previous decade, you find eight such backs in the fourth, five in the fifth, two in the sixth, and three in the seventh. Of those 18 backs the closest thing you could find to a “star” is either Tarik Cohen or Dion Lewis.

(Note: these are only backs who participated in the NFL scouting combine, I could be missing out on a couple of names who like Ekeler, were not invited.)

Consider that Cohen and Lewis also don’t really have the same physical profile as Ekeler because they’re considerably shorter. Cohen is 5’7, 179 and Lewis is 5’7, 193. But Ekeler ran about the same speed as Cohen (4.42 for Cohen) and was much faster than Lewis, who ran a 4.56.

Cohen did manage to get drafted in the same year that Ekeler wasn’t and that’s after playing at North Carolina A&T. He was a small back at a small school and yet Cohen was drawing a lot more interest. Eventually he got drafted in the fourth by Matt Nagy and the Chicago Bears. Through a couple of years it looked like a good move but after 2019, you have to wonder why Ekeler was in Nagy’s blindspot, if that’s what caused Nagy and GM Ryan Pace to focus on Cohen instead.

Remember, this is the same year that Nagy and Pace gave up two third and a fourth to move up one spot for Mitchell Trubisky rather than waiting or selecting Patrick Mahomes or Deshaun Watson. They could have also traded back at some point, picked up a seventh, and had Ekeler.

That being said, Cohen has made a Pro Bowl and an All-Pro roster. Not as a running back or a receiver though and that’s where Ekeler may have a future that Cohen didn’t seem to have last season when he caught 79 of 104 targets.

Ekeler, as a fun reminder, caught 92 of 108.

After rushing for 260 yards and catching 27 passes for 279 yards as a rookie, Ekeler posted 554 rushing yards and 39 catches for 404 yards in year two. His yards per carry averages were 5.5 and 5.2, respectively, and his catch rate was 77.1% and 73.6% during those years. Though his yards per carry dipped last season, everything else got much better.

132 carries, 557 yards, 4.2 YPC, 92 catches, 993 yards, 85.2% catch rate, 9.2 yards per target, 6.9 yards per touch, 11 touchdowns, three fumbles.

I can find 48 names of players who participated in the combine in the 2010s and measured 5’11 or under and 199 pounds or lighter and the closest example of any of them having even one season like that is Spiller in 2012: 250 touches, 6.8 yards per touch, eight touchdowns, three fumbles.

Spiller caught 75.4% of his 57 targets and was seen as more of a “runner” than Ekeler but these are players with roughly the same size and speed. Spiller played at Clemson, “starred there” (in hindsight, he was exciting to watch but his numbers, while impressive, aren’t as impressive as I had expected), and that seems to be one of the main reasons that he became the ninth overall pick and Ekeler wasn’t drafted. Playing in college 10 years apart as the running back position became more and more devalued also contributed but it’s interesting to think about how much our perspective is shifted based on pre-draft expectations.

Let’s hope the Spiller comparisons end there.

Spiller went down to 235 touches and 4.8 yards per touch in 2013 with only two touchdowns and four fumbles. He was phased out in 2014 and in 2015 signed a four-year, $16 million deal with the New Orleans Saints. It’s okay if you don’t remember that, it lasted only 36 carries and 34 touches. He had eight more carries in his career after 2015.

In 2017, Dion Lewis had 212 touches, 5.2 yards per touch, nine touchdowns, and no fumbles in his final season with the New England Patriots, He signed a four-year, $19.8 million deal with the Tennessee Titans and in year one had 214 touches, 4.3 yards per touch, two touchdowns, and one fumble. By 2019, Derrick Henry clearly needed no help.

In 2018, Cohen had 170 touches, 6.9 yards per touch, and eight touchdowns, but he fumbled seven times. In 2019, Cohen dipped to 143 touches, 4.7 yards per touch, three touchdowns, and three more fumbles.

There has been somewhat of a mission by teams to find that “next Darren Sproles” and Ekeler certainly has an opportunity to succeed where many have failed. And we forget just how incredible Sproles was (maybe not you, but plenty do forget) even though his career-high in touches was only 173.

Perhaps that is something to keep in mind also.

Sproles averaged 7.5 yards per touch in 2008 with the Chargers, 6.1 in 2009, 7.2 in 2010, and then in his first season with the Saints put up 173 touches for 7.6 yards per touch, nine touchdowns, and one fumble. It’s not easy to put up 7.6 yards per touch as a running back who is often touching the ball as a runner.

Christian McCaffrey was at 5.9 yards per touch last season.

Sproles had 7.4 yards per touch in 2012, 6.6 in 2013, then went to the Philadelphia Eagles in 2014. That season he went to the first of three Pro Bowls in a row and he averaged 7.4 yards per touch. His yards per touch figure dipped after 2014 but he remained a consistent impact player in the passing game until 2016.

Can Ekeler have a Sproles kind of future? And what is that worth?

Right now, Ekeler is set to have a $5 million cap hit in 2020, which ranks 12th overall at the position. I think that even a season that is 80% of what he produced in 2019 would be enough for him to be a top-10 running back. I think we’ve also seen in previous examples that Ekeler is likely to get as many or more touches next season and so the opportunity will be there.

In 2021, he is the eighth-highest paid back. Though we could expect some of those ahead of him to be released (including perhaps Melvin Gordon with the Denver Broncos), another name or two could be signed and move ahead of him and his $5.75 million cap hit.

There are only three backs set to make more than him in 2022: Ezekiel Elliott, Le’Veon Bell, and McCaffrey. I wouldn’t expect Bell to still be there and we’ll see what backs sign for more than $6.5 million. I do not expect it to be very many backs though unless the league or players association does something about rapidly falling running back value.

On another hand, what if Ekeler continues to catch 90 passes for 900 yards? Even if he’s running the ball less than 100 times per season, if he scores 10 times and fumbles three or fewer times, does that make him at least as valuable as a consistent possession receiver? In 2019, he had more yards and touchdowns than Terry McLaurin, DK Metcalf, Tyreek Hill, Emmanuel Sanders, Calvin Ridley, Larry Fitzgerald, Deebo Samuel, Austin Hooper, and many others. What if he can consistently do that?

The list of receivers who are supposed to make more than $6.5 million in 2022 is long (20 names already) and includes guys like Cole Beasley, Quincy Enunwa, Adam Humphries, Randall Cobb, and Tyler Boyd. Could the 2019 version of Ekeler or even an 80% version of that not be a better value at $6.5 million than the $10.5 million going to Sterling Shepard?

The only potential downside — and it is quite a downside — is that question of “Is Austin Ekeler as unique and gifted as Darren Sproles, a one-of-a-kind player in his generation?” Because if he’s not, he’s probably more likely to be C.J. Spiller, Tarik Cohen, or Tyler Ervin (another remarkably similar player by combine measurements and who is currently returning kicks for the Packers) and that is not worth $5-6 million per year.

It’s not a huge risk for LA though to sign him to that deal and so whether he becomes a bargain or a disappointment, his extension was the right move.

By the way, Austin has a younger half-brother named Wyett (literally his own college profile page call him “Wyatt” but that is incorrect) who is listed at 5’11 and 175 pounds. Imagine if he has the same athleticism.

He’s opted to play cornerback.