The Los Angeles Chargers could be on the verge of losing one of their most important playmakers. Austin Ekeler has been given permission from the Chargers to speak with other teams about a potential trade after he and the team were unable to progress in talks regarding a contract extension, his agent confirmed on Tuesday. The NFL's leader in scrimmage touchdowns in each of the last two seasons reportedly requested to talk with other teams about a trade on Monday.
Ekeler is headed into the final season of a four-year, $24.5 million contract extension he signed back in 2020. He's set to count against L.A.'s books for $7.75 million in 2023, according to OverTheCap.com, while drawing a base salary of $6.25 million. The cap figure ranks 14th among running backs, while the base salary clocks in at 12th.
Ekeler has been one of the NFL's most productive players at his position over the life of his current deal, racking up 2,356 yards and 26 touchdowns on 526 carries (4.5 yards per carry average) while adding 1,772 yards and 15 additional scores on 231 receptions. He has become arguably the most trusted target for Justin Herbert, and last season led all running backs with 102 receptions. Ekeler is one of two players in NFL history with multiple seasons (2021-2022) of 10 or more rushing touchdowns and five or more receiving touchdowns, joining Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk (2000-2001).
The Chargers recently created a bunch of operating room under the cap by restructuring the contracts of Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, Joey Bosa, and Khalil Mack, pushing guaranteed money into the future so they could presumably add talent to the team in the near-term and/or prepare for the lavish extension with which they will presumably soon have to give Herbert.
L.A. also recently made a change at offensive coordinator, hiring former Dallas Cowboys coordinator Kellen Moore to replace the departed Joe Lombardi. Losing Ekeler as a foundational piece of the offense is surely not something the Chargers wanted to happen, especially considering the relative dearth of passing-game options the team has beyond him, Allen, and Williams. The Chargers have also struggled to find even a complementary back to Ekeler to both give him a break and juice their run game, which would presumably suffer in his absence as well.
If he were to be traded, Ekeler would likely want a contract extension as part of the deal. With the top running backs on the free-agent market (Saquon Barkley, Josh Jacobs, and Tony Pollard) all receiving the franchise tag, it's possible that back-needy teams could view him as a desirable alternative. His contributions in the passing game make him a more valuable player than a typical running back, though it's worth noting that he will play next season at 28 and could soon be subject to the age curve that tends to hit players at his position harder than those at others. Still, Ekeler showed no sign last season of slowing down, and could likely contribute at a high level for at least another couple of years.
Let's take a look at some potential landing spots for Ekeler if he is dealt:
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The Bears have a bunch of extra draft capital now after trading out of the No. 1 overall pick. They have more cap space than any team in the league. And they are likely highly motivated to surround Justin Fields with as much talent as possible this year so that they can make an informed decision on whether or not to extend his contract next offseason. They have a solid back on the team in Khalil Herbert, but he was almost entirely uninvolved as a pass-catcher last year, and Ekeler would provide a much different look. He would immediately be the one of Fields' top two targets along with D.J. Moore.
It sounds like the Lions are going to lose Jamaal Williams to the Buffalo Bills. We have seen over the past couple years that they want to rotate two or even three backs through the lineup, and doing so could help keep both Ekeler and D'Andre Swift fresh throughout the year. They are similar players, which could lead to diminishing returns, but it would also allow them to not have to change much of their offense depending on which back is on the field. That said, Detroit may not want to pay up for Ekeler's services given its desire to rotate multiple backs.
Sean Payton has valued receiving backs very highly, as we saw during the Alvin Kamara days with the Saints. Denver has room for another back after releasing Chase Edmonds, and we don't yet know when Javonte Williams will be ready to return from his torn ACL -- or how healthy he'll be when he does. Giving Russell Wilson a security blanket in underneath areas could help get him back to a level of player closer to where he was in Seattle than what he showed a year ago.
Miami signed two backs last offseason in Edmonds and Raheem Mostert, then traded away Edmonds and acquired Jeff Wilson Jr. Both Wilson and Mostert, along with Salvon Ahmed and Myles Gaskin, are free agents this offseason. We know this team is willing to invest in the running back position, we know it's willing to trade draft picks for high-level players, and we know Mike McDaniel can scheme up pass-catching opportunities for explosive players. The fit makes sense.
Houston has Dameon Pierce on a rookie deal, and he should be a big part of the team's offense. But Pierce was not a particularly efficient passing-game weapon last season, and Houston could be interested in giving its new quarterback -- whomever that is -- a top-flight weapon out of the backfield for the next few years. Rotating Ekeler and Pierce could be good for both players, and for the offense.