Austin Ekeler, the rookie running back acquired as an undrafted free agent by the Los Angeles Chargers, showed up on weekly highlight reels for his performance against the Jacksonville Jaguars last Sunday. A catch and tight rope run along the sidelines for an eventual TD turned heads, raised eyebrows, and probably some other cliche that meant people paid attention.
With very little NFL game to review, what do fans of the Buffalo Bills need to know about Melvin Gordon’s backup?
One of the easiest ways to give you an idea of what to expect with an unknown player is to draw a comparison to someone more familiar. For Buffalo Bills fans, the name that comes to mind when watching Austin Ekeler carries a ton of weight. Ekeler’s jack-of-all-trades ability and on field demeanor bear more than a passing resemblance to Fred Jackson.
As a running back, he falls into the “good” but not necessarily “great” category for just about everything you’d like to see. He’s not bowling everyone over when he runs, but he has sufficient strength to fall forward more times than not. He’s fast enough to turn a small gain into a long one, but he isn’t quite a true home run threat based on speed. Good vision and “wiggle” allow him to sneak through the little spaces when they’re there to find.
While there’s not many blocking snaps to go on, he seems adequate in this role, and can be counted on to block ahead of a developing play or to protect the QB on a scramble. This combines with good awareness on the field, which allows him to re-enter the mix when things don’t go as expected.
As a receiver, he’s a viable threat but probably won’t take the top off a defense. Sure hands make him a good safety valve in the traditional “running back as a receiver” role.
The one aspect of his game to clearly draw Jackson comparatives is his balance. The aforementioned tight rope TD was an absurd display of precision footwork, agility, and balance. Similarly, on a punt earlier in the year, Ekeler was able to down the ball inside the one yard line. Rather than swat the ball to prevent it from being a touchback as you often see, he sprinted down, fielded it cleanly, walked the rope, and downed it himself.
Ekeler is heating up in snap counts, and if his results to date are any indication, expect the increased playing time to continue. Prior to last week, Ekeler had only scratched double digits two times when considering carries and passes thrown his way. The Chargers’ Week 7 game against the Denver Broncos represented his highest total number of touches prior to the Jacksonville game. He had seven carries and four passes thrown his way in the Denver contest. Against Jacksonville, he had ten carries for 42 yards. He also had five targets, catching all five of them for 77 yards and two touchdowns.
So far, he has not been called on to rush the ball on third or fourth down plays. It’s not hard to see why, as he’s a sub-200 pound back. The next smallest running back for the Chargers is listed 12 pounds heavier than Ekeler. With only first and second downs to consider for rushing, it’s notable that two-thirds of his touches have been on first down. In the passing game, about half of his time on the field comes on second down, with the rest an even split between first and third downs.
Ekeler will also show up on special teams as a gunner, where he can usually be spotted around the play. He’s returned five kicks this year, as well. This has been sporadic, though, with three returns in Week 2 and the rest coming in Week 8. He hasn’t given his team an edge in this regard, averaging 17 yards per return. To compare, Brandon Tate is averaging 21.4 yards per kick return this season.
There’s nothing that I’ve seen from watching Ekeler that suggests any of his positives are a fluke. Despite a low volume of touches in his first year, he’s making an impact when given the chance.
With Buffalo reeling from two devastating losses and setting dubious records with their rushing defense, it’s imperative that they fly west with a solid game plan against the Chargers. Austin Ekeler is a player that can create some nice things anywhere on the field. With recent evidence suggesting the Chargers are warming up to their rookie, he’s not a player the Bills should overlook.