Veteran running backs are often replaceable, but Austin Ekeler is not

The Chargers should be prepared for what could happen to Justin Herbert and the Los Angeles offense if the star checkdown option goes through.

The Chargers have allowed Austin Ekeler to seek a trade, and while I understand your first instinct might be to Google whether Ekeler and Aaron Rodgers are personal friends and what the Jets’ running back depth chart looks like, I can promise you that this it will be a bigger deal in December than we imagine right now.

Ekeler, 27, is one of the NFL’s most valuable players and has been instrumental in the development of Justin Herbert. I’m much less interested in the fact that he scored 38 touchdowns over the last two seasons than the fact that he was responsible for nearly 15% of Herbert’s first downs in that same span, on top of the 99 more first downs he added. on the ground.

As we wrote before the start of last season, the proliferation of Vic Fangio-style umbrella defenses has ushered in a golden age of checkdown running backs. As a result, we begged the Panthers not to trade Christian McCaffrey and the Giants not to trade Saquon Barkley. To be honest, we didn’t see the Chargers parting ways with Ekeler because his presence seemed so obviously and closely tied to Herbert’s progress. The Giants, who struggled to make a deal with quarterback Daniel Jones in part because they had already used the franchise tag on Barkley, and the 49ers, who traded up nearly their entire mid-round draft pick to get McCaffrey, appear to agree. .

McCaffrey, at his peak, accounted for more than 50% of the Carolina Panthers’ passing first downs, but that was during the tail end of the Cam Newton era. (Newton was passing for fewer than 200 first downs per season and was dealing with diminished arm strength due to a shoulder injury.) So those numbers look a little high.

In a modern offense designed to spread the ball around, Ekeler’s first down share is somewhat unheard of, nearly 5% better than Leonard Fournette during his best year with checkdown happy Tom Brady. Ekeler’s ability after the catch is also eye-opening. No running back caught as many balls as he did in 2022, and no running back was within a few yards of his average reception distance. Ekeler caught his passes an average of 1.1 yards behind the line of scrimmage and racked up nearly 900 yards after the catch. He saved one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL from arm stress multiple times per game and created easy completions that kept drives flowing.

Ekeler joined the Chargers in 2017 when he signed his first professional contract as an undrafted free agent.

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Eli Manning, Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger led the league in completions to a running back at one point. the availability of easy completions correlates with some of the most efficient seasons in the careers of Hall of Fame quarterbacks.

Consider this three running back lineup. We combined their two best shooting seasons:

  • Player 1: 77.8 catch%, 6.9 scrimmage yards per touch, 8.7 yards per target, 82 first downs
  • Player 2: 83.8 catch%, 6 scrimmage yards per touch, 7 yards per target, 99 receiving first downs
  • Player 3: 84.75 catch%, 6.1 scrimmage yards per touch, 7.45 yards per target, 78 first downs

Ekeler is the third player. The first two; Marshall Faulk and McCaffrey, respectively. Ekeler is competitive in almost every major, has better yards per touch than McCaffrey and also has better yards per target. Ekeler has, in two seasons with Herbert, almost as many first downs as Faulk had while playing with the Greatest Show on Turf.

OK, you say. I kind of convinced you that Ekeler is better than you thought. But paying back is bad. He’s not that valuable anymore if he makes more than the $6.25 million he’s due in 2023. We’ll just draft some guys and make up for it.

For that, I would request you to take a look at this course. While they are deep, there aren’t more than a very small handful of players who could plan to take on that workload. Joshua Kelley caught 56% of his passes with the Chargers last year despite a similar starting average to Ekeler. Larry Rountree III, in a very limited sample size, caught 100% of his passes but only received two targets. Isaiah Spiller only got three.

Ekeler isn’t just another running back. He’s a focal point of an offense that, no matter who calls the plays, needs a capable checkdown option to limit the stress on Herbert, who is already one of the most taxing quarterbacks on a down-to-down basis in the NFL.

While we usually celebrate getting some sort of mid-round pick for a running back on the wrong side of the 26, this isn’t one of those times.

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