COSTA MESA — Austin Ekeler wants the football. Or more to the point, he wants to be on the field so that he can handle the ball as a runner or a receiver or serve as a decoy, a blocker, or whatever else the Chargers’ coaching staff might have in mind for him.
It’s possible the Chargers use him less often than in the past in an attempt to save him for the long run, saving him from the wear and tear of playing so many roles out of their backfield. It could be a less is more situation during the 2022 season.
“I’m not expecting any kind of dip in usage with him,” Chargers offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi said. “But, like any running back, unless you’re 250 pounds, sometimes there’s a pitch count on those guys. (Ekeler) isn’t someone you want to lose halfway through the season because you overused him. Just being smart with how many times he’s getting hit every game is something that you have to keep any eye on.”
For the record, Ekeler is listed at 5-foot-10, 200 pounds.
Limiting his usage might have been a tougher call in past seasons, or at least since Melvin Gordon’s departure after the 2019 season, but the Chargers added to their depth at running back during this past offseason. They drafted Isaiah Spiller in the fourth round from Texas A&M, for example.
Joshua Kelley, a third-year veteran from UCLA, and Larry Rountree III, a second-year pro from Missouri, also are battling for positions on the 53-man roster.
“We’re going to count on those other guys to pick up the slack when he’s not in there,” Lombardi said, referring to Ekeler and his many backups.
There must be strength in numbers, given how productive Ekeler was in 2021. He was tied for the NFL lead with 20 touchdowns from scrimmage, including 12 rushing TDs. He also was third in the league with a career-high 1,558 yards from scrimmage, including 911 yards rushing.
“It’s my job to add as much value as I can, not only in the running back spot but out in the slot and kind of all over the field,” Ekeler said. “I think that’s where I have a lot of value in my game. You can pretty much put me wherever and I’ll have some type of value. Whether you want me running deep down the field with speed, whether you want me running across the middle, whether you want to hand the ball to me or throw the ball to me, have me as a decoy going one way on a screen type of thing, I’m going to be efficient wherever you put me.”
Ekeler could share the field, too, as he once did sometimes with Gordon.
“If we have a guy who’s a predominant runner, who can really pound the rock and is really strong at that, maybe stronger than I am, we can still see him,” he said. “But I still see myself being on the field at the same time. I remember, I think it was Year 3, when Melvin Gordon and I were really splitting carries. There were a lot of times when we were on the field at the same time. You want the best players at the right time in the right situation. It’s my job to make sure my value is still understood out here.
“As far as my load, yeah, maybe it could be altered a little bit but I don’t think it’ll go down. I think it’ll just look a little different, if anything.”
JAMES (NON-) UPDATE
Chargers coach Brandon Staley had nothing new to report on the ongoing talks for a contract extension for All-Pro safety Derwin James, who spent Day 3 of training camp Friday watching and encouraging his teammates from the sideline. He won’t practice until a deal is completed.
“Just being patient with the process,” Staley said. “We’re working through it.”
Asked if James was missing anything significant to start camp, Staley shrugged. The Chargers know what to expect from James and James knows what to expect from the Chargers.
This is, after all, his fifth season in the league.
“Derwin has played so much NFL football,” Staley said. “He’s probably the least of our concerns. We’re going to just let this process play out. As I mentioned, and I believe it’s true, it’s just part of the NFL. When you’re dealing with some of the best players and contracts like this, it takes some time. We’re working through it.”
James was scheduled to speak to reporters after Saturday’s practice, but he’s not expected to chat until after his contract is finalized. It’s anticipated that a deal will be struck sooner rather than later.