After career year, Austin Ekeler takes Chargers' RB1 reins

Though they moved on from their franchise quarterback of nearly two decades and are coming off a 5-11 campaign, the Los Angeles Chargers certainly are not a team lacking aspirations for a successful upcoming season.

Los Angeles' defense is rich with talent, boasting six players with Pro Bowls to their credit. And the Chargers offense, though it has a large quarterback question mark, offers phenomenal talent at wide receiver and tight end, a hugely improved offensive line and one of the game's most versatile running backs in Austin Ekeler.

In Ekeler's case, though, the ball is his as the lead back for the first time in his career. Like last season, Ekeler will begin the year as the No. 1 back, but this time around it won't be because Melvin Gordon is holding out. Gordon has gone to Denver and Ekeler is the back in the Bolts' backfield.

It leads to a pivotal question for the Chargers: Can Ekeler succeed as an every down running back?

Having signed Ekeler to a four-year, $24 million extension, the Chargers have endorsed the 25-year-old dynamo as a lead back and a crucial piece to what is hopefully a winning puzzle following a failed season. It comes with good reason after Ekeler's 2019 showing.

Minus Gordon over the season's first four games, Ekeler was averaging 20 touchdowns and 122.5 total yards per game, putting forth numbers that had him on pace for 1,920 scrimmage yards and what would've been a league-best 24 total touchdowns, per NFL Research.

Obviously, being on pace to produce and actually following through are far different things and therein lies the question of whether Ekeler can sustain his production and weather the storm of a full season as a No. 1 running back.

Even balancing the load with Gordon, Ekeler's numbers were of an all-star caliber as the Pro Bowl snub's 1,550 scrimmage yards were ninth in the NFL and his 11 total touchdowns were tied for eighth. 

Ekeler's 132 rushes, 557 yards on the ground and three rushing scores were all career bests, just as his 92 receptions, 993 receiving yards and eight touchdown catches were. Those eight TD grabs were the most by an NFL back and his catches and receiving yards trailed only Christian McCaffrey.

At one point during his illustrious Hall of Fame career, running back LaDainian Tomlinson posted an NFL-record eight consecutive seasons with 1,500 or more scrimmage yards and 10 or more scrimmage touchdowns, per NFL Research. Ekeler has a chance to be the first Chargers running back to tally consecutive years with those numbers since Tomlinson's 2007-08 seasons.

Justin Jackson and rookie Joshua Kelley are likely to spell Ekeler and get their share of touches, but the former undrafted free agent is now, without a doubt, the No. 1 running back in the Bolts backfield. How far and for how long Ekeler can carry the load might well be a determining factor in how long L.A.'s season is and how far the Chargers can go.

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