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Austin Ekeler has 'great relationship' with Chargers but 'relentlessly pursuing' opportunity for better deal

Los Angeles Chargers running back Austin Ekeler requested and received permission to explore trade options last week after contract extension talks went nowhere.

Joining the Green Light with Chris Long podcast, posted on Monday, Ekeler clarified that the request had nothing to do with the organization, but simply a desire to get paid commensurate with his value.

"I think it's really important to put it out there that it's not like, 'Oh, I hate the Chargers and I need to get out of this organization, and I need to leave,'" he said. "That couldn't be further from the truth. I would like to stay if it was under the right circumstances.

"Obviously, I have one more year on my contract there, so I'm contractually obligated to play for them for this upcoming year. So, we're in a situation where it's like, look, we have no guarantees or anything like that this year, so kind of in a spot where I've been outplaying my contract, and we might have an opportunity to go seek out other options that can bring me up."

Ekeler is currently experiencing a dual threat of pay suppression: No. 1, the RBs market has cratered; No. 2, undrafted players rarely fully dig out of that pre-draft status to earn similar money to highly selected players.

After going undrafted out of Western Colorado in 2017, the running back proved his value in Year 2, generating 958 scrimmage yards in 2018. He boosted that to 1,550 scrimmage yards in 2019, including 933 receiving yards and 11 total touchdowns.

After playing for peanuts for three years as an undrafted free agent -- he made $1.67 million total ($556K per year) -- Ekeler signed a four-year, $24.5 million contract in 2020. The past two seasons, the 27-year-old back has generated 3,195 total scrimmage yards, including 900-plus rushing yards each campaign.

Ekeler said there is no timeline on when he could be traded -- though, as a practical matter, we'd assume the draft is a soft deadline if the Chargers are to see any value returned in a trade this season.

"I feel like there's no timeline on it," he told Long. "I'm so underpaid right now as far as my contract and what I contribute to the team, it's like, I am relentlessly pursuing this. I want to get something long-term done. I want a team that wants me long term. I'm at the peak of my game, right? As long as I'm healthy, I'm gonna score you another 20 touchdowns. I'm gonna have, you know, another 1,600 all-purpose yards. I'm getting half my value of what I could be getting. I am relentlessly pursuing someone who wants me for the long term."

To be frank, the deal was a steal for the Chargers the moment it was signed, but given what he was making, it was hard to fault Ekeler for signing any contract that boosted his pay significantly. Now, with one year left with a base salary of $6.25 million, he's comically underpaid. His $6.13 million average per year on his deal ranks 14th among running backs. Christian McCaffrey ($16.01 million) and Alvin Kamara ($15 million) make well more than double.

It's understandable that the Chargers are wary of giving a running back a third contract. Those historically go poorly. But Ekeler has stayed healthy for the most part and isn't your normal road-grading back. His ability to play in space, particularly in the passing game, could allow for a more gradual decline.

It's petrifying to imagine L.A.'s offense sans Ekeler. The club has attempted for years to find a capable second fiddle in the backfield to take some pressure off but heretofore has swung and missed. The hope is that fourth-round back Isaiah Spiller might take on more of the load in Year 2. Not having Ekeler's dynamic home run ability in the passing game would hinder Justin Herbert's growth as well.

Ekeker told Long that the trade request has nothing to do with his relationship and is simply business -- something teams often cite when cutting a player or negotiating a pay cut.

"It literally has nothing to do with the relationship. I've made a great relationship there," he said. "Grown there. That's where I started. So, I want to be there, but on the right terms. Because I know, look, I can't play forever. I think I can play for a long time just the way I play and the way I treat myself and my mentality. There's not a lot of 5-foot-8 running backs doing what I'm doing. And there's a reason behind that is it's mostly [mental]. And I've been able to skirt the injury bug.

"But for me, it's like, if there's an opportunity to get more value, than why would you not jump on that? Why would you not at least try out the options? And worst-case scenario -- it's not even a worst-case, really -- but, OK, go play on the last year of your deal in L.A., then become a free agent."

Given his deal and value, it's actually somewhat surprising Ekeler didn't make this push last season. Entering the final year of his contract, it makes sense for the back to look for a new payday. With the Chargers needing to pay Herbert, however, you could understand certain aspects of their trepidation.

Whether they can find common ground on a new deal will be a storyline for the next several weeks as we hit the second and third waves of free agency. It remains to be seen if another club could step up and offer the Chargers a deal of draft picks that could pry the playmaking Ekeler out of L.A.

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