Melvin Gordon had better hope the NFL market is friendly this offseason.
The Los Angeles Chargers took steps to ensure their backfield without him on Friday when they agreed to sign restricted free-agent running back Austin Ekeler to a four-year, $24.5 million contract that includes $15 million guaranteed, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter. The 24-year-old playmaker could make as much as $26 million over the course of the deal through incentives.
Ekeler established himself as one of the most dynamic pass-catching rushers in the NFL last season, leading all running backs with eight receiving touchdowns and finishing with five or more catches in 10 of the Chargers’ 16 games. He also led all NFL players with 92 consecutive catches without a drop and finished with the 12th-most receiving yards (993) by a running back in league history.
“The Chargers were the first team to believe in me as an undrafted free agent out of Western (State Colorado),” Ekeler said of his new contract, via NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero. “To be able to ensure my long-term future with this team is a dream come true and my ultimate goal is to bring a championship here to this franchise.”
The Chargers’ decision to sign Ekeler to a big payday the clearest indication yet the franchise is planning to move on Gordon, whose future has been in flux since contract negotiations between both sides broke down last preseason. The Chargers reportedly offered him $10 million per season, but the 26-year-old was seeking a larger sum and opted instead to hold out of training camp and the first few games of the regular season.
Gordon ended his holdout in September and returned for the team’s Week 5 game against Denver, splitting carries with Ekeler over the final 12 games and rushing for a team-high 612 yards and eight touchdowns. The damage was already done, though, as Ekeler took full advantage of his additional opportunities and proved to the Chargers he was more than capable of stepping into a premier role.
Per ESPN’s Josina Anderson, Gordon was already expected to test the free-agent market for 2020 as one of the top running back available. Now, Gordon might have no choice but to find a new home.
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Ekeler Makes Best Fit for New Quarterback
The Chargers ended up being rather fortunate with how their backfield situation sorted itself out considering they managed to keep a dynamic backfield force on their roster without shelling out more than $10 million annually, as was Gordon’s desired range.
The understated value is the Chargers now have additional capital to pursue a new quarterback in free agency after parting ways with veteran Philip Rivers earlier this offseason, whether it be a high-profile name such as Tom Brady or Dak Prescott or someone a bit more affordable. While there are still some other pending free agents to consider re-signing, the Chargers are expected to have just short of $50 million in cap space after accounting for Ekeler’s new contract.
Beyond the financial appeal, Ekeler also offers a new quarterback a better pass-catching weapon out of the backfield than Gordon would have offered. Gordon’s receiving numbers — 92 catches, 767 yards and five touchdowns over the past two seasons — have been serviceable for the Chargers, but they are dwarfed when stacked against Ekeler’s most recent season. Per ESPN, Ekeler ranked second in the NFL with 10.3 yards after catch during the 2019 season.