Chargers Sign Ekeler to a $24 Million Contract

When it comes to free agent running backs, every NFL General Manager should remember the names of Todd Gurley and David Johnson. In 2018, Gurley signed a 4-year, $57.5 million contract with the Los Angeles Rams, with $45 million guaranteed. At about the same time, Johnson signed a 3-year, $39 million contract with the Arizona Cardinals, with $31.8 million guaranteed.

Gurley developed a knee issue that was later identified as an arthritic knee. In the 2018 NFC championship and in the Super Bowl, Gurley had only 10 carries for 45 yards and caught two passes for two yards combined in the two most important games of his career. In 2019, Gurley failed to rush for 100 yards in a single game. Johnson lost his starting job last season, rushing for only 345 yards.

Tom Telesco, General Manager of the Los Angeles Chargers, decided to go in a different direction, deciding against re-upping running back Melvin Gordon in free agency and re-signing restricted free agent Austin Ekeler. Gordon missed all of training camp last season, plus the first three games of the season, in seeking a long-term deal comparable to Johnson or Gurley. Gordon struggled upon returning to the lineup and ended up rushing for just 612 yards for the season.

Gordon wanted a contract comparable to the top backs in the NFL. Coming off a good 2018 season, it was understandable, but he should have played out his contract in 2019. Gordon would have made $5.6 million in salary in 2019, but the holdout cost him about $2 million in lost paychecks and fines. Gordon won nothing by holding out and gave Ekeler a chance to shine as the starter at running back.

The lesson for Telesco and other General Managers in the NFL is do not overpay for a running back. Ekeler signed a 4-year, $24.5 million contract with the Los Angeles Chargers, including $15 million dollars guaranteed, and an average annual salary of $6,125,000 million. Ekeler was an undrafted free agent out of Western Colorado University, who was signed for $5,000 in 2017.

In the 2019 season, Ekeler gained 1,550 yards from scrimmage, rushing for 557 yards and catching 92 passes for 993 yards. He will assume the starting back role for the 2020 season. Justin Jackson, a 7th round draft pick in 2018, will become the backup to Ekeler at running back. The Chargers have locked up a good running back for the next four seasons at a good price and for half of what Johnson's contract would have cost them in terms of guaranteed money.

Gurley's guaranteed money is three times the amount Ekeler is getting. The risk in paying a running back too much is that they get injured, as both Gurley and Johnson did. Over the past three seasons, Johnson has suffered wrist, knee, back and ankle injuries. As the San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs showed this past season, running back by committee could be the best way to go.

For the Chargers, getting the running game going and keeping flexibility to sign key free agents was important and that was partially accomplished with the signing of Ekeler. But Telesco was far from done. In a rare player-for-player trade, the Carolina Panthers sent five-time Pro Bowl right guard Trai Turner to the Chargers for their two-time Pro Bowl left tackle Russell Okung.

The trade improves the interior of the offensive line and should help the running game. Turner also saves the Chargers about $4 million against the salary cap in 2020 and he will be 27 years old at the start of the season. In two moves, Telesco saved money against the salary cap and got younger, with Ekeler being two years younger than Gordon and Turner five years younger than Okung.

The Chargers have been clearing salary cap space for possibly a big free agent signing, maybe a future hall-of-fame quarterback or at the very least, some quality offensive lineman to help the running game. Whatever their offseason plans are, they have gotten off to a good start with last week's free agent signing of Ekeler and the trade for Turner.

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