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Raheem Mostert wants trade or contract: Should Chargers pair him with Austin Ekeler?

A look at that possibility

NFL: SEP 23 49ers at Chiefs Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

When Raheem Mostert last played in college, he was at Purdue in 2014 and the leader in rushing yards in the Big Ten was Melvin Gordon. The future Chargers running back posted an unreal 2,587 yards that season, followed by Indiana’s Tevin Coleman at 2,036 yards. Ezekiel Elliott was third at 1,878 yards.

You would have to go down to 18 to find Mostert (529 yards) and in doing so would pass by another familiar name: Northwestern’s Justin Jackson had 1,187 yards in 2014. Mostert even had fewer rushing yards in the Big Ten than Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett and Wisconsin’s do-everything receiver/back/safety Tanner McEvoy. In fact, the Badgers had three players ahead of Mostert when you count backup Corey Clement.

But that was six years ago and suddenly Raheem Mostert looks like he could be the second-best running back out of that group today. And he doesn’t even want to be paid like that.

He simply wants to be paid like a player who will be starting at running back for the defending NFC Champions and a favorite to get back to the Super Bowl next season, but the San Francisco 49ers seem to feel comfortable that his current contract is fair enough. After all, he does have $1 million in incentives tied to his deal if he performs as well as he believes he’s going to play.

That’s not going to be good enough for running backs much longer, I don’t think.

With the news that Dalvin Cook plans to holdout this year until he receives a deal, I start to wonder if more backs will take this stance after recognizing that it is the one position that has the heaviest workload, the shortest lifespan, and the least amount of money. It is not thankless — it’s just that people thank you for helping them with their fantasy team that season and then “thanks for nothing” if you don’t or get injured.

Mostert saw the 49ers trade fellow back Matt Breida to the Miami Dolphins this offseason, further clarifying his role in 2020. His agent is arguing that he only wants to be paid as much as his teammate, the aforementioned Tevin Coleman, who is making $4.55 million.

It seems as though San Francisco is unwilling to do this and so Raheem Mostert has requested a trade. Would the LA Chargers make any sense as trade partners?

I think so.

Setting aside the “running backs don’t matter” argument for a moment, consider the Chargers current position at this position. They’ve re-signed Austin Ekeler and made it clear that they would like to continue to utilize him heavily in the offense, especially given the transition at quarterback from Philip Rivers to Tyrod Taylor and Justin Herbert. Having a receiving option of the backfield like Ekeler could prove paramount to the offense’s success moving forward.

But few regard Ekeler as a premier runner between the tackles and so that’s where a “true” RB1 could come in handy right away.

At the moment, Justin Jackson appears the favorite to do that but he’s had just one career game with more than eight rushing attempts: 16 carries for 58 yards against the Kansas City Chiefs in 2018. In his two NFL seasons, Jackson has yet to play in more than 40% of the offensive snaps during any game other than that one against KC. This despite the fact that Gordon missed eight games in the last two years and LA was looking for someone to help replace his carries.

Jackson himself missed half of the season in 2019 with a calf injury.

The Chargers depth at the position is provided by Joshua Kelley, a fourth round pick out of UCLA, plus undrafted free agents Darius Bradwell, Bobby Holly, and Gabe Nabers. Derrick Gore rounds out the group. Kelly was fairly productive over the last two years but a fourth round rookie during a short, unusual offseason is not necessarily much of an insurance option.

Especially compared to the NFL’s leader in yards per carry.

Mostert bounced around the NFL for a few years and hung on only because of special teams attributes. By 2018 he was 26 already but the 49ers started to work him into the offense. His first big game came on October 15, 2018 against the Green Bay Packers: 12 carries for 87 yards. That opened a four game stretch where Mostert had 28 carries for 250 yards, an average of 8.9 yards per attempt. But a fractured forearm ended his season right there.

In 2019, Mostert signed a three-year extension and returned to win at least a piece of the job taking handoffs from Jimmy Garoppolo. He had 34 carries for 202 yards in the first three games alone, 5.9 yards per carry. His opportunities waned a bit but in the final six games, Mostert had 70 carries for 424 yards, 6 yards per carry, and seven touchdowns. Then in the playoffs, Mostert had 12 carries for 58 yards, 29 carries for 220 yards, and 12 carries for 58 yards in each game.

He also scored four touchdowns in that 220 yard effort against the Packers in the NFC Championship. His final tally for the playoffs: 53 carries, 336 yards, 6.3 YPC.

His final tally for 2019: 137 carries, 772 yards, eight touchdowns, 5.6 yards per carry, 14 catches for 180 yards, two touchdowns, two fumbles.

I have little doubt that Mostert, even at 28, would be a valuable addition to LA’s roster. His age doesn’t really matter to me because I’m never looking beyond the next two seasons. Or at least, I try not to unless it clearly should matter. In the case of the Chargers adding a player who can help them run the football over the next two seasons, Mostert’s age is meaningless. He has 178 CAREER carries. He’s not been worn out because he’s taking hits or anything.

2019 rookie Miles Sanders has more career carries than Raheem Mostert.

What about financial compensation? The Chargers have an estimated $20 million in cap space for next season and won’t be strapped in any way, shape, or form if they added $5 million for Mostert. In some cases I think people have gone a little walnuts over obsession with the salary cap and how much money they have and how much player X is getting. “You can’t pay a running back $5 million!”

Think of the value that Mark Ingram brought to the Baltimore Ravens in 2019. If you were Baltimore, you would have rather cut him to save $3.3 million? He’s set to make $5 million in 2020 and will probably get the heaviest workload as a runner once again. Should the Ravens cut him now?

What would the trade compensation be? That’s tough to predict right now. Breida brought back a fifth round pick in the 2019 draft. Given that Mostert seems pretty content to not play for San Francisco if they don’t increase his pay, and that the 49ers don’t seem willing to do that (after paying Jerick McKinnon over $15 million to not play for them in the last two seasons), can they expect to do better than a fifth round pick?

GM Tom Telesco has not made many deals during his tenure but he has changed that attitude a bit in 2020, including trading for Trai Turner. What’s more valuable to the Chargers: a 2021 fifth round pick or the next two seasons of Raheem Mostert?

Answering with “a fifth round pick” is totally reasonable and acceptable, but dismissing the question entirely is not a productive way to resolve the issues of a team or to improve when improvement possibilities are presented. Maybe Jackson and Kelley are more than enough to support Ekeler and the quarterbacks, but if not, the NFL’s leader in yards per carry may be more valuable to his next team than we currently suspect.