The Chicago Bears are already down a starting running back this offseason, but that roster void opens a spot for one of the best dual-threat options in the NFL.
ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported on Tuesday, March 14, that the Los Angeles Chargers had granted Austin Ekeler the right to explore trade options after contract negotiations between the player and team hit a standstill.
“Chargers granted permission to RB Austin Ekeler today to seek a trade after the two sides failed to make progress for a new contract, per his agent Cameron Weiss,” Schefter tweeted.
Ekler has led the NFL in combined touchdowns in each of the last two seasons, finding the end zone 18 times last year and 20 times the year before. He tallied 915 rushing yards at a clip of 4.5 yards per carry in 2022, while hauling in a whopping 107 catches for 722 receiving yards, per Pro Football Reference.
He will play his seventh professional season in 2023 at the age of 28 years old and has shown himself capable of remaining healthy while carrying the full load of an every-down back over the previous two campaigns. Those realities, along with Ekeler’s malleable and versatile playing style, make him the perfect fit behind quarterback Justin Fields in the Bears’ offense.
Bears Can Build Trade Package For Ekeler Around 2nd-Round Pick
A deal for Ekeler’s level of production will no doubt be pricey for the Bears, should they choose to pursue it. However, the Chargers’ unwillingness to re-up with the running back at his asking price is going to impact negotiations. The general devaluation of the position across the league should help keep prices low as well, as the current franchise tag rate for running backs is just shy of $10.1 million.
The Bears amassed significant draft capital this year, primarily by dealing the top pick to the Carolina Panthers for a package that included the No. 61 overall selection in the second round.
That pick is a solid starting point for negotiations on Ekeler, with a deal potentially getting across the finish line with the addition of an extra mid-round selection — for example, the No. 133 overall pick in the fourth round or the No. 137 overall pick in the fifth round, which carry essentially the same value despite their technical round discrepancy.
Bears’ Offense Will Border on Elite With Ekeler Addition
Any trade between Chicago and Los Angeles would almost certainly see the Bears agree to extend Ekeler long-term, likely in the range of eight-figures annually. As of now, Ekeler is scheduled to play the final season of a four-year, $24.5 million deal with the Chargers in 2023.
That is essentially the same money that former Bears running back David Montgomery will earn annually after he agreed in principle to a three-year deal worth $18 million to join the Detroit Lions on Tuesday.
His departure has created a vacuum in the offensive backfield behind Fields, perhaps the most dangerous rushing threat at quarterback in the entire league. Khalil Herbert remains on the Bears’ roster and has been elevated to RB1 on the depth chart for now, while Chicago wasted little time adding former Seattle Seahawks rusher Travis Homer in behind him.
Still, playmakers like Ekeler are few and far between and Chicago will likely remain a rush-first offense next season as Fields continues to develop his skills as a passer. Ekeler helps out massively in both regards, functioning in key situations as a quality wide receiver among the likes of D.J. Moore, Darnell Mooney and Chase Claypool. Throw in tight end Cole Kmet and the Bears’ offense all of the sudden looks not only young, but also quite formidable for several years moving forward.
Mooney, Claypool and Kmet are all eligible for contract extensions this offseason. Despite a slew of quality defensive signings already, the Bears still maintained nearly $44 million in 2023 salary cap space as of Wednesday.