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Austin Ekeler’s 2020 extension is a cautionary tale for running backs

How responsible is Austin Ekeler for being “so underpaid?”

Syndication: Florida Times-Union Corey Perrine/Florida Times-Union / USA TODAY NETWORK

Austin Ekeler has made the media rounds this offseason, complaining about the running back market and his inability to secure an extension by the Chargers. He received permission from the Chargers to gauge outside interest and see if a trade partner was willing to part with draft capital and extend him. To Ekeler’s very public frustration, no suitors came to the table.

The plight of the NFL running back is a topic worth delving into much further, centered largely around the rookie wage scale handcuffing running backs from negotiating their entry contacts until they’ve completed three years of service, but wholly restricting leverage until their fifth year is complete. By then most backs are in their age 27-29 range, when a significant drop-off in performance and efficiency is typical.

Ekeler’s predicament is actually an exception to this rule. His situation is incredibly unique in that yes, he is wildly underpaid for his services... but it’s the result of a contract he negotiated and signed. Josh Jacobs, Saquon Barkley, and Tony Pollard - the three franchise-tagged running backs that couldn’t secure extensions by the July 17th deadline - all have been deprived of negotiating a contract with a semblance of leverage against their current teams. Conversely, Ekeler negotiated with the Chargers in 2020 and signed an extension that seemed like a bargain even by 2020’s numbers.

Ekeler’s 2020 offseason options

Austin was a Restricted Free Agent in the 2020 offseason, which meant he had some leverage in his negotiations with the Chargers. At the time, the Chargers would have had the option of tendering Austin with one of three offers, and receive the following compensation if Austin signed with another team:

  • Original draft round (no compensation since Austin was a UDFA): $2,133,000.
  • 2nd round draft pick: $3,259,000
  • 1st round draft pick: $4,641,000

In each of these scenarios, if Austin had agreed to terms with another team, the Chargers would have a week to match the offer. If they refused, Austin would be clear to sign elsewhere, and the Chargers would have received the corresponding compensation. The key is that Austin would have had an opportunity to hear what the market perceived his value to be.

Ekeler was coming off a season where he achieved 1550 yards from scrimmage and 11 touchdowns despite sharing a backfield with Melvin Gordon for the majority of the year. Melvin had held out the previous year, and was on his way out the door with Ekeler’s emergence.

It wouldn’t have made sense for the Chargers to risk losing Ekeler for no compensation, so Austin’s floor was likely the 2nd round tender of $3,259,000. What would the fallout have been if Ekeler had not signed the extension, and play on this tender?

What would the 2021 offseason look like for UFA Austin Ekeler?

The non-exclusive franchise tag in 2021 was set at $8,655,000. Even in a down year where Austin missed six game to injury, he racked up 933 yards and 3 total touchdowns. It does beg the question of whether Austin would have proven enough value to justify the tag, or if he would have slotted in somewhere amongst the following signings:

  • Aaron Jones: 4 years, $48 million, 26 years old (1459 total yards, 11 touchdowns in ‘20)
  • Chris Carson: 2 years, $14 million, 26 years old (968 total yards, nine touchdowns)
  • Mike Davis: 2 years, $5.5 million, 28 years old (1015 total yards, eight touchdowns)
  • Jamaal Williams, 2 years, $7.5 mil, 26 years old (741 yards, three touchdowns)

Ekeler’s production in 2019 and pace in 2020 set Aaron Jones as his best comparable. While the Chargers would have been unlikely to dish out a hefty extension after his injury, hitting him with the franchise tag seems like a reasonable compromise.

So far, the opportunity cost of Ekeler not signing his 2020 extension is as follows:

  • 2020 salary (2nd round tender): $3,259,000
  • 2021 salary (non-exclusive franchise tag): $8,655,000

After one franchise tag, what would the 2022 offseason have looked like?

As expected, Ekeler bounced right back in 2021 and put up 1558 yards from scrimmage and 20 touchdowns.

Austin could have been the belle of the ball in an offseason stripped of top-end running back talent. Leonard Fournette was the headliner after he bounced back from a 600 scrimmage yards, six touchdowns season in 2020 to a 1,266 yard, ten touchdown year in 2021. He managed to secure a three year, $21 million deal to stay with the Buccaneers.

Austin would have commanded leverage with the Chargers, who would have been forced to decide between letting him walk and having no reliable in-house replacement, or signing him to his second franchise tag, valued at $10,386,000.

If the Chargers had tagged Austin, his total pay through years 2020-2022 would have been $22,300,000.

If they had signed him at this point, Aaron Jones’ contract from the year prior would have been the most relevant comparable, along with the 3 year, $36 million extension Nick Chubb signed with the Browns in 2021.

Evaluating the total financial impact of Austin’s 2020 extension

If Ekeler was franchise tagged again in 2022, he would have entered free agency at 28 years old and at the peak of his production, with the Chargers having little leverage in negotiations. Tagging Ekeler again would cost them $14,955,840, which would still put his hit lower than the averages of Christian McCaffrey and Alvin Kamara. The Chargers would be unable to tag him a fourth time come 2024. This would have brought his four-year total to $37,255,840, assuming he was never able to agree on an extension during this time.

Essentially, had Ekeler bet on himself, he would have nearly matched the pay from his four year extension in the first three years alone. Had he not agreed on an extension when he actually had leverage backing his pay, he would have made an additional $12,755,840 by the end of the 2023 season, and the Chargers would have zero leverage in negotiations in 2024 (although their current cap projections have likely killed their leverage as it is).

The lesson from Austin Ekeler’s 2020 negotiation

It’s easy to look back on negotiations years after the fact and declare winners and losers. The odd exception of Austin’s extension was that fans truly believed it was an insane value at the time it was signed. Ekeler chose an early payday, receiving $9,500,000 in bonus money and salary in 2020 versus the $3,259,000 he likely would have been tendered, while only negotiating $5,500,000 in remaining guarantees throughout the rest of his deal.

It’s not to say Ekeler made the wrong choice; a freakish injury could happen at any point in an NFL player’s career. However, Austin had the opportunity of choice, unlike his currently franchise-tagged counterparts. He essentially hedged against catastrophic injury derailing his market value, in which case he likely would have been cut in 2022 and retained $15,000,000 of the total extension. However, back of the napkin math suggests that he would have been much better served being a little more patient, and not rushing to the negotiating table after one breakout year and little leverage supporting him.