Alexander: Chargers’ Austin Ekeler carries the banner for disgruntled running backs

COSTA MESA — When the Chargers’ season begins Sunday afternoon against Miami, Austin Ekeler won’t just be rushing or receiving or throwing blocks for the Chargers. In a sense, he’ll be performing on behalf of every underpaid, undervalued, disrespected running back in the NFL.

No, wounds don’t heal that fast.

The rate of pay – and, more significantly, length of contract – for running backs has been a topic of contention all summer. It came to a head when the New York Giants’ Saquon Barkley, the Raiders’ Josh Jacobs and the Cowboys’ Tony Pollard were all franchise-tagged by their current teams in the spring, at $10,091,000.

Pollard accepted the figure, coming off a broken leg and high ankle sprain suffered in last year’s postseason. (The Cowboys maintain they offered a long-term contract but didn’t disclose the numbers, and Pollard’s decision to take the franchise figure should be a hint that they weren’t satisfactory.)  Barkley agreed to sign for a slightly higher figure than the tag, $11 million including some incentives. Jacobs held out until last week and got a $12 million deal with $200,000 in incentives from the Raiders.

Jonathan Taylor of the Colts, entering the final year of his rookie contract at $4.03 million, wasn’t eligible for the franchise tag, got no sweetener and in fact had to listen to his team’s general manager say, “The market is what the market is.” In response, Taylor posted this on social media: “1. If you’re good enough, they’ll find you. 2. If you work hard enough, you’ll succeed. …If you succeed… 3. You boost the Organization …and then… Doesn’t matter, you’re a RB.”

1. If you’re good enough, they’ll find you.

2. If you work hard enough, you’ll succeed.

…If you succeed…

3. You boost the Organization

…and then…

Doesn’t matter, you’re a RB

— Jonathan Taylor (@JayT23) July 17, 2023

As it turns out, Taylor requested a trade, nothing materialized, and he’ll start the season on the Colts’ Physically Unable to Perform list.

Ekeler, entering the last year of his four-year, $24.5 million contract with a $6.25 million wage this year, sought permission to request a trade early in the offseason, was rebuffed by the Chargers, but had his contract sweetened with a potential $1.75 million in incentives based on yards, touchdowns and a potential Pro Bowl selection.

There’s a common thread here. None of those players are signed beyond this season.

“We want to see at least a multiple-year deal at some type of market value. That would be some type of hope,” Ekeler said earlier this week.

“If you’re going to give us a one-year and it’s like you’re forcing us to take this, the thing is you’re forcing us to take all the risk. Football is a risky game. People get hurt, I don’t care what position it is. But you’re forcing us to take a one-year deal because you’re like, ‘Oh, I don’t want to pay you for whatever the justification is.’ You know, this (hypothetical player) has had 1,600 yards rushing and 14 touchdowns or something like that. If they wouldn’t have had him, it would have been not a great season for them.”

It’s fair to assume this mindset goes back to Todd Gurley’s last contract with the Rams, a four-year, $57.5 million extension that he signed after his NFL Offensive Player of the Year season in 2017. His knee betrayed him in 2018, the Rams’ Super Bowl year; he was released by the Rams in 2020, played one season for Atlanta and was out of football before his contract expired.

It is hard to tell whether the better definition of the prototypical NFL executive is copycat or risk-averse. Both apply in this case. There’s still money to be had, but it goes more often to quarterbacks, receivers and dynamic defensive players, and never mind that guys at those positions are susceptible to injury as well. The common wisdom when it comes to running backs: There’s always another stud available in the draft.

And yes, it is a passing league. But consider: Ekeler made the Chargers’ roster as an undrafted free agent in 2017. He has risen from special teams guy to starter to multi-faceted talent; in 2022 he accounted for 915 rushing yards (204 carries) and 722 receiving yards (702 catches) and led the league in touchdowns for the second year in a row with 18 (13 rushing), after scoring 20 in 2021.

It’s also worth noting that he moved up the depth chart because Melvin Gordon had his own contract issues with Chargers management, which in the case of this team is hardly unprecedented.

One gripe Ekeler has is that exceptional performance is not being rewarded. Again, this trend probably goes back to the Gurley contract and its ramifications.

“What I think is not being taken into consideration is that the guys that are playing at the top level at the position are getting compared to this general sense of running backs where it’s like, ‘Well, typically running backs get hurt. Typically they’re not making the bigger plays the receivers are,’” he said. “These guys are atypical.

“If you look at (Tennessee’s) Derrick Henry, if you look at guys that are actually moving the actual offense forward and they’re running these offenses through these guys … if the offense is going through this individual and they can make that type of impact on the team, why are they not being compensated or allowed to find something on the open market and why are they being compared to something that isn’t them? We’re the only position that’s getting that right now. And so that’s what I think is being overlooked, is that when you’re an outlier at your position, you shouldn’t be compared to the (average) of that position.”

The affected running backs do keep in touch, though it’s probably as much for commiseration purposes as anything. About the only thing any of them can do at this point is to put up numbers, even if the system seems skewed against them.

“It’s up for us to go out there and be outliers and continue to make an impact to our team, (so others say) ‘Man, it’s going to be hard to replace that’,” Ekeler said. “And so that’s our job. And so that’s why I’m rooting for all of our running backs out there that are making an impact to keep doing it. And hopefully they can stay healthy and do it all season to fight that narrative.”

In other words, make yourself as indispensable as possible. If it’s possible.

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