Going Deep: How should we approach the Chargers backfield?

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know there is a chance Melvin Gordon sits the year out or he’s traded to another team entirely. The Chargers have given their “best offer” already, and Melvin Gordon says it’s not enough for him to play. So what happens? I have no clue. I’m paying attention though, and I want whoever ends up as the Chargers starting running back. We learned last year in Pittsburgh not to ignore this kind of thing, and now it’s happening again in L.A (and Dallas if you’re keeping score). So let’s assume–for the sake of this deep dive–that the Chargers are moving on from Gordon. How should we react? Which running back is the better value? Let’s take a look.

 

What to know about Austin Ekeler

 

Last season–in the 3 games Melvin Gordon missed and Austin Ekeler played–Ekeler saw 12, 13, and 15 targets for 42, 21, and 66 yards. In those 3 starting opportunities, he averaged just over 3 yards a carry and failed to impress in the lead role. However, Ekeler’s season numbers were much better. In his 14 games played, he carried the ball 106 times for 554 yards (5.23 ypc) and caught 39 of his 53 targets for 404 receiving yards. During his 3 games in the lead role, Ekeler also saw 20 targets and 12 receptions. It seems almost impossible, even if Ekeler misses out on the lead role, for him not to still have value in the passing game. Here are his season stats:

Carries Rush Yards YPC Rush TDs Targets Receptions Rec. Yds. Rec. TDs Fantasy Pts.
Game 1 5 39 7.8 0 5 5 87 1 23.6
Game 2 11 77 7.0 0 3 3 21 0 12.8
Game 3 4 47 11.8 0 3 3 24 0 10.1
Game 4 8 25 3.1 0 3 2 31 1 13.6
Game 5 6 15 2.5 0 3 1 44 1 12.9
Game 6 7 60 8.6 0 0 0 0 0 6
Game 7 12 42 3.5 0 7 5 26 0 11.8
Game 8 3 21 7.0 0 2 1 13 0 4.4
Game 9 3 19 6.3 0 0 0 0 0 1.9
Game 10 6 29 4.9 0 2 2 40 0 8.9
Game 11 5 35 7.0 1 11 10 68 0 26.3
Game 12 13 21 1.6 0 8 5 22 0 9.3
Game 13 15 66 4.4 1 5 2 28 0 17.4
Game 16 8 58 7.3 1 0 0 0 0 5.8

Note: Austin Ekeler was inactive for games 14 and 15. Melvin Gordon was out for games 7, 12, 13, and 14. 

 

And here are some of the takeaways:

  • In games where Ekeler had 10+ carries, he had 4.0 YPC. In games where he carried the ball less than 10 times, his YPC jumps to 6.3.
  • In games where Gordon was out, Ekeler averaged 6.7 targets and 4 receptions per game. In games with Gordon healthy, Ekeler saw roughly 3 targets per game and 2.5 receptions per game.
  • Ekeler scored five of his touchdowns while backing up Gordon (66 carries, 27 receptions) and only one as a lead dog (40 carries, 12 receptions).

So what can we learn from this? Through two seasons, Austin Ekeler has seen just over 150 carries and has averaged over 5.2 YPC during that time. He is adept at catching the ball, including seeing more targets than Melvin Gordon in five separate games last year when they were both healthy. It seems impossible that Ekeler isn’t at least involved in the passing game this season, and he should have a significant enough role as a result. How significant will his value be though?

Since 2010, running backs with 60+ receptions in a season finish as an RB1 74% of the time. Even with only 50+ receptions, the number is still 55%. If we lower the bar, 80% of all running backs who hit the 50 reception mark finish as an RB2 or better. This just leaves one last obstacle…predicting Ekeler’s workload. Last year, Ekeler had 53 targets and 39 receptions in 14 games. Paced to 16 games, this would have been good for 61 targets and 45 receptions. If Ekeler were to pick up even 10% of Gordon’s pass-catching workload, he would have hit 50 receptions. His ceiling could easily surpass 60 catches, and we just learned what that means. I could easily say much more, but this is enough to show Ekeler’s safe floor if he holds on to his passing work. He should be a minimum RB2, and he has RB1 ceiling.

 

What to know about Justin Jackson

 

Okay, so Ekeler is going to dominate the passing game. That’s fine. In fact, I think this might work best for both players. Picture the situation last year in Indy with Marlon Mack and Nyheim Hines. Then there are the Chicago Bears who played Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen. Or if you prefer, use the Patriots (Sony Michel and James White) or the Saints (Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram) as your model. Plenty of teams have an excellent running back tandem and they find success. It typically requires a back who excels at catching and another who can carry the load. So can Justin Jackson hold up his end of the bargain and be a workhorse–or close to it? Before we look into it, let me warn you that our sample is extremely small, so take this with a grain of salt.

 

Ekeler’s Carries Rushing yards YPC Jackson’s Carries Rushing yards YPC
Game 7 12 42 3.5 2 3 1.5
Game 12 13 21 1.6 8 63 7.9
Game 13 15 66 4.4 7 12 1.7
Game 14 8 58 7.3 16 58 3.6

 

These numbers certainly aren’t that impressive. Between Ekeler and Jackson, they only hit 5.0+ YPC twice between them in these 4 games. What we can say in Jackson’s defense, however, is that he never even had much of a chance last year. He missed almost all of the preseason with injuries before muscling through the last preseason game just to make the team. He was inactive for the first three weeks of the regular season and then saw only five carries in the next seven weeks. This is not a great start to a rookie’s career.

Jackson eventually saw action in weeks 11 and 12, and he made the most of it. He had 15 carries, 120 yards, a touchdown, and 8.0 YPC between those two games. He showed the rushing potential that he had flashed as a workhorse at Northwestern a year prior. The rest of the season finished quietly, but Jackson proved he had something to give at the highest level of football. What was that? Let’s watch some game film:

 

 

In this first play, we see Jackson run for nearly 20 yards on first down. He follows his blocks at the line, and his acceleration allows him to quickly break free into open space. He pauses his feet for a split second, allowing him to dodge a tackle attempt with a shifty move. He then runs through a second tackler and ‘charges’ up the whole offense. Here’s the next play in the game:

 

 

Jackson catches a screen pass and has plenty of room for the first down. Instead of running out of bounds, though, he breaks back in for another five yards. His acceleration and footwork once again allow him to turn a big play into an even greater one. Let’s look at one last clip from the same drive.

 

Two minutes of game time after the previous catch, Jackson is at it again. The Chargers offensive line creates a big hole and Jackson blasts through it. He makes a quick move from left to right in order to shake off two defenders, and the result is an 18 yard dash for a score to take the lead for the L.A. That’s three explosive plays on a single drive. How many running backs do you know with the ability to take over a game like this?

Now we could easily say that some of this was situational; the Chargers offensive line did a lot of the heavy lifting against Pittsburgh, and they made Jackson’s life easy. That’s fair. We also have to recognize the impact Jackson had on these plays. Not many running backs can take over a drive and change the outcome of a game in a matter of minutes (Austin Ekeler, for what it’s worth, had 13 carries for 21 yards in the same game). Jackson has the look of a workhorse, and we saw similar results against the Cardinals last season. I feel I must again repeat what I said about the small sample size, but I’m not too worried. Why not? Let’s look at some scouting work done by Matt Waldman.

Matt Waldman meticulously scouts the many rookies coming into the league each year (quarterback, running back, wide receiver, and tight end), and he’s done so in amazing detail every year since 2006. He’s watched more tape than I will in my life, and he’s successful enough to make it his full-time career. What did he have to say about Jackson? He made comparisons between him and Clinton Portis and Jamaal Charles. Sure, Charles was a little faster and represents the highest ceiling Jackson could ever hope to hit. However, their gifts make them similar backs in physical size, athleticism, and play style. Waldman also ranked Jackson (against the whole 2018 RB class) as elite or near elite in terms of ball handling, speed, acceleration, vision, and elusiveness. He saw Jackson as having immense potential–as long as he managed to get a shot. If Gordon is gone, Jackson will get that shot.

 

Conclusion

 

Okay, so both players have potential roads to success. Which one should you go for? Right now, Austin Ekeler is being drafted in the late 7th round while Justin Jackson is going in the early 13th round. I think they both have the potential to succeed, and I’d be tempted to grab both if Gordon doesn’t play. Think of it this way: would you trade a 7th and 13th round pick for an RB1? I sure would, and I expect both to have that potential if they run away with the job. If I was staking my claim on only one of them, though, I’d go for Jackson at his much cheaper draft cost. He has an excellent opportunity to be the guy, and I could see him turning into a workhorse. While I like Ekeler’s game, I don’t see him becoming what Melvin Gordon was. I see him more as a specialist who works best in a supporting role (think Duke Johnson, Tarik Cohen, James White, or Nyheim Hines). I’m also worried that he might lose some receptions to Henry and the other pass-catchers. I haven’t even mentioned Jackson’s value as a pass catcher (13 receptions in his last 5 games). At the exact same ADP, I would be flipping a coin on whether I take Jackson or Ekeler, because I think this could wind up close to 50-50. Ekeler has shown more, but I like Jackson’s ceiling more. In this case, it’s not a tough choice. I’ll save five rounds of value. Justin Jackson is the Chargers backup I want this season.

 

(Photo by Michael Goulding/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire)

Michael Miklius

Mike is a lifelong Bears fan and unapologetic Mitch Trubisky homer. Twitter: @SIRL0INofBEEF

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Comments


Marty

I’m interested to see how much of Ekeler’s YPC is inflated because the Chargers decide to run on a 3rd and long with the defense playing back. What’s Ekeler’s YPC on 1st and 2nd downs, I wonder… I like the analysis. JJ made the most of the limited opportunities he had last year.

Michael Miklius

Thanks Marty! I agree that Ekeler usually gets to run out of favorable situations and it’s one of the reasons I’m not as high on him stealing the workhorse role. That being said, I think Ekeler has much safer value…no matter what happens, I see him in his current role. JJ would have to really kill it to steal the job outright

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