At one point this summer, Chargers running back Austin Ekeler received permission to seek a trade, believing he was being severely underpaid as one of the game's most productive ball-carriers. Now, with Los Angeles struggling offensively late in the 2023 season, Ekeler might not even be guaranteed his starting job, with coach Brandon Staley hinting this week at a demotion for the veteran.
"Competition for carries is going to be something that you can see happening," Staley told reporters Wednesday, per ESPN. "We're going to keep exploring, making adjustments, so that we can find that rhythm that I've been talking about. That's certainly one way to do it. ... We know that Austin is a good running back. We just haven't found any rhythm in the last couple of weeks in the run game."
Since returning from an ankle injury in Week 5, Ekeler has yet to eclipse even 70 yards on the ground in a single game, averaging just 2.9 yards per carry over eight weeks -- a span in which the Chargers have gone 3-5. It's a far cry from his Week 1 performance, when he topped 150 scrimmage yards against the Dolphins before hurting his ankle. Fourth-year backup Joshua Kelley, meanwhile, has averaged 4.0 yards per carry, while logging nearly as many first-down runs (20), in 12 games this year.
Kelley stands to benefit the most from a reduction in Ekeler touches, but 2022 fourth-round pick Isaiah Spiller could also see an uptick in touches. Spiller has appeared in just five games up to this point, totaling 15 touches in a limited role.
The 28-year-old Ekeler is in the final year of a four-year, $24.5 million extension he sought to renegotiate this offseason. When healthy, he's traditionally been one of the NFL's best multipurpose backs, logging at least 70 catches in three of his previous four seasons. But he's never topped 1,000 yards as a rusher and has also been a bit more muted as a pass catcher in 2023, with just 295 receiving yards through nine games. For reference, he had 54 catches for 403 yards in just 10 games back in 2020.