Over the coming weeks, I will be performing an analysis of each position group on the Chargers roster. The goal is to break down each group and see how each player faired in 2019. This will help to determine which players should be resigned, which positions need to be upgraded via free agency, or the draft, and potential contract extensions for the many players entering their prime. I am pushing for a goal date of March 6th, prior to the start of free agency. Free agency begins March 11th for negotiating, and players may enter into contracts on March 13th, the start of the new league year. This will provide me a week to look at potential free agents the Chargers should resign, and targets to upgrade their own team.
The Chargers backfield is going to be something to watch this offseason. First, where is Melvin Gordon going to play next year. Make no mistake, Melvin Gordon is a star in this league and is is deserving of a contract, making him a top paid running back. Austin Ekeler is also a free agent, though restricted. This allows the Chargers to tender the young running back and it will be interesting to see how the team values him. Justin Jackson is an intriguing young player who has shown flashes to be special, though he’s buried on the depth chart. Troymaine Pope looked good in preseason action, and lastly, Derek Watt is an under-rated full back who lead the league in Special Teams tackles.
I believe Melvin Gordon is a special player. Fans really are unhappy with him, because of an ugly contract holdout that kept him out until week 5 action. Looking at that game, you saw a player who hadn’t practiced with the team all preseason, and it showed. The preseason helps players get in football shape and helps teams build chemistry, neither of which was there for Gordon. In fact, many fans put all of the blame of the 2019 season on the Melvin Gordon contract dispute. It’s a fair assumption, and honestly they could be right. Gordon himself said he will never miss another training camp in his career, because he was largely irrelevant for a good portion of the season.
It took Gordon 4 weeks to get in some type rhythm. He was force fed touches and didn’t get his breakout game until Green Bay in November. On the season, he topped 100 yards only once, though his value really came in short-yardage and goal line situations. In 11 games, Gorden had 162 carries for 612 yards, averaging under 4 yards a carry. He did have 8 touchdowns on the year. Not all issues fell on Gordon, as the offensive line was atrocious. Still, even when Gordon came back, some could argue that Ekeler was the better back. More on that later…
Gordon is the back you want running down hill in traps and dives, though, he has actually been more effective outside the tackles in his career. He has not played well when asked to pick up a blitz, and that’s partially because he is always looking to be the check down man. Some of that is play calling and it is an area i’d like to see him improve. He is utilized on screens and check downs pretty regularly and its an area he’s greatly improved on from his rookie year. He occasionally makes guys miss, but thats not really his game. Gordon fights harder then most on getting extra yards and doesn’t want to go down. It doesn’t help with injuries, but it gets first downs. Thats why it’s good to have a capable backup. He is a smaller Derrick Henry in run style, with mini-beast mode capability. He’s going do the dirty work for the team that other backs on the roster can’t do.
The big question is whether Gordon should be back with the Bolts next year. Given a full training camp, with an improved offensive line, there’s no reason Gordon can’t become the work-horse back he was the year previous. He will likely be in contention for comeback player of the year in 2020, regardless of the team he plays for. He is more valuable to this team than Charger fans realize. There was a considerable dip in red zone efficiency, especially in beginning of the year, without Gordon in the line up. As good as Austin Ekeler is, Ekeler is 5’10, 200 pounds, and isn’t the type of back you want running in the A or B gaps in a goal line situation.
Without bringing Gordon back, the Chargers will have a similar issue next year. Gordon values himself as the leagues top running back and he should. He’s a great player able to tire a defense down. I don’t fault him for thinking his worth is 15 million a year, even though he’s not. His teammates love him, he has a great personality for Los Angeles. He has said he wants to be a Charger. I see the Chargers letting him test free agency, but I don’t see many teams offering him what he wants. In the end, I believe he will sign with the Chargers on a 4-year deal worth about 44 million, with a ripcord in year 3. Im guessing about half will be guaranteed. Once he starts producing again, fans will forget the contract holdout the same way everyone let go of the Bosa holdout.
Austin Ekeler might be my favorite player on the roster. He does so many things well. He’s got a great personality, he’s a team player and acts like a veteran with many more years experience than he has. The coaching staff has nothing but praise for him. He came in as an un-drafted free agent from a little school in Western Colorado. He plays a lot bigger than he actually is. If you follow him on twitter @AustinEkeler in the offseason, you’ll see a bunch of workout videos and he’s pretty strong for a guy his size. I will be deeply disappointed if he leaves the Chargers.
For the year, Ekeler had 557 yards on 132 carries, good for 4.2 yards per carry. Decent numbers for a back splitting time with Gordon, but where he really excels is out in space. As a receiver, Ekeler caught 92 passes for 993 yards, just short of the 1000 yard marks as a running back. He has a tendency for making guys miss, and his best overall trait is overall balance. He stays low to the ground and finds a way to stay on his feet when defenders try a shoulder-check tackle. They don’t work on him. He just has a great feel for what’s going on around him. Some say he was a better back than Gordon, but that’s not fair when the two players play a different style of ball. Gordon is the type of back to play between the tackles, chewing up game clock and wearing down the defense. Ekeler is the change of pace back to use as a Swiss army knife by moving around to create miss-matches all over the field. The two backs compliment each other.
The Chargers really look for different ways to get Ekeler the ball to create those miss matches. He lines up at running back, and occasionally will line him up at the z receiver position. From that receiver position, the Bolts will motion him into jet sweeps, screens, let him run crossing routes and occasionally, deep routes if the team see a linebacker manned up. He has great hands. In the backfield, he has a good sense of finding the hole, and because he plays so low, it can be hard for the defense to find him. Also, he is always available. He doesn’t take big hits. Injuries are not something that has been a major issue for him at this point in his career. There aren’t a whole lot of things I can negatively critique him on, outside size limitations. He’s not a goal line back or short yardage guy. He will give up 2-3 fumbles a year.
Austin is a restricted free agent this year. The Bolts should give him a contract rather then tender him. If they do tender him, it’s hard to imagine he’s not worth a 1st round pick and 4.1 million in salary. Something interesting to look at is his market value. If the Chargers do lock him up long-term, Spot-track has his value at 11.9 Million-a-year or 4 years, 47.8 Million making him the 5th ranked paid running back. Personally, I love Austin Ekeler, but I am not so sure he’s worth that price tag as a running back. I do see him worth maybe 8-9 Million a year. His value will be hard to quantify, but he’s been available and highly productive thus far in his career. Good luck to Tom Telesco on sorting that out!
Justin is another very interesting player to watch, and if the Chargers do end up letting Ekeler walk, it’ll be because of the emergence of Justin Jackson. He does some similar things as Ekeler, but I would say he’s more powerful as a runner. He’s very shifty and I think better between the tackles. He also has this head bob when he cuts that makes him look extremely quick. We haven’t seen him utilized all that much in the passing game, and thats an area I would like to see more of. As a 7th round pick, he’s an absolute steal.
Chargers fans haven’t seen a whole lot of tape on Jackson as he has been buried on the depth chart awaiting his time. He also hasn’t really been available all that much. He has dealt with injuries that kept us from seeing him in too much action. His rookie year, he missed almost all of preseason, though we saw him late in the year. This year we lost Jackson after the 3rd week and by the 5th week Gordon was back with the team. He has looked good in preseason games, and it will be fun to see what he has in store for his 3rd year. The coaching staff seems to be behind him and they have tried to get him in a few games, though he only had 29 touches for 200 yards. That is good for 6.9 yards a carry and that is something to watch, though half those yards came in the first 2 games. He was largely irrelevant the rest of the season.
As the 4th-string running back, there isn’t much to say about the kid. He had a strong camp with some great tape from preseason. He earned a roster spot in a crowded backfield, so you have to give him some props. He only played in the Miami game, in garbage time, where he had 10 carries for 20 yards. The 3rd-year back has an uphill climb to gain a roster spot for next year as a 4th-year running back in the league. He also was starting to be used in punt returns while Desmond King was having issues, though he did muff a punt.
I’m high on Derek Watt. He has really grown in his role as a fullback. He hits the hole hard and keeps the running lanes open. He rarely misses his target. I would like to see the team in more I-formations, utilizing 2 back sets. He has been used in fullback dives successfully. I think he could be utilized a bit more like Kyle Juszczyk in San Francisco. He may not be quite as athletic as the Pro Bowler, but he is athletic enough to make some plays. Watt is also a key contributor in special teams. He lead the league in special teams tackles, though missed the Pro Bowl himself. He has done a good job as the wing on field goals, and as the personal protector in punt formations. He is really under-rated, and deserving of a next contract this off-season.