The second installment of our pre-free agency overviews heads to the backfield to take a look at the Chargers’ current group of ball-carriers.
This position group isn’t expected to see a ton of change this offseason with only one player potentially not returning in 2021, but don’t be surprised to see the staff add another young talent late in the draft due to the groups inability to stay healthy this past season.
With that being said, let’s take a look at the five backs still on the roster and the group’s lone free agent.
On Roster: RB Austin Ekeler, RB Justin Jackson, RB Joshua Kelley, FB Gabe Nabers, RB Darius Bradwell
In the team’s Week 1 matchup in Cincinnati with Tyrod Taylor at the helm, the Bolts went with a run-first approach that limited Ekeler to just one reception on the day while still rushing for 84 yards. Over the next two games with Herbert starting, Ekeler totaled 153 rushing yards and 139 receiving yards with one touchdown on the ground. After coming back from his severe hamstring injury, Ek averaged 6.5 catches and 90 total yards of offense per game. It’s safe to say that there was no drop-off in production for the team’s RB1 with a new quarterback under center and no signs of that happening in the near future, either.
While Ekeler was sidelined for six games, Jackson and Ballage split the starts with four and two, respectively. Jackson was the more efficient option with 443 total yards on 78 touches compared to Ballage’s 108 touches and 389 total yards. The main difference between the two, however, is that Jackson once again couldn’t stay healthy for the entirety of Ekeler’s absence, nor in general. He missed seven total games in 2020, succumbing to his first injury after just two carries into the season.
Kelley was the team’s fourth-round pick from last year’s draft out of UCLA. He scored the team’s first touchdown of the season and showed some play-making ability in the passing game against the Chiefs in Week 2. However, he never saw much improvement as the season went on, finishing with a YPC of 3.2 over 111 carries. After rushing for over 60 yards in each of the first two games, he topped 40 yards just once more. Even with injuries to both Ekeler and Jackson in front of him, Kelley couldn’t find a way to capitalize on the opportunity.
Nabers made the team as an undrafted free agent out of Florida State due to his versatility as an H-Back. He lined up in a variety of spots inside the box, allowing the offense to add some new wrinkles as the year went on. He only totaled five receptions and two carries on the season, but he caught a pair of touchdowns which is pretty much the dream season for a fullback in the NFL. If Brandon Staley wants to keep a fullback-type player in the offense going forward, I think Nabers deserves a shot at keeping his job this year.
Lastly, we have another UDFA in running back Darious Bradwell. Affectionately labeled an “F-150” by Anthony Lynn, Bradwell came in well above his normal playing weight of 235. He worked hard, lost the weight, and stuck with the team as a practice squad player who saw a little playing time on special teams in two separate games. He recorded no stats in 2020.
Free Agent(s): RB Kalen Ballage
After being promoted to the active roster, Ballage played in eight-straight games before missing the regular season finale with a lower-body injury. His play in 2020 peaked during his first three games with the Bolts as he recorded 15, 18, and 16 carries and averaged 85.6 yards per outing. He became less and less efficient once Ekeler returned to the field but mainly ran as the team’s backup rusher through the final third of the season.
Prior to the staff change, I thought Ballage deserved the chance to stick around into 2021, but I don’t think the new regime wants to go out of their way to bring back a guy they didn’t bring in themselves after just eight games worth of production. I think rookie contracts will win out here if they decide to add to the room, if at all.