The NFL offseason officially churned into action Monday when the period for teams and free agents to negotiate contracts got underway at noon ET. Before any big names could agree to terms, however, an unexpected veteran approached the market.
Austin Ekeler led the league in total touchdowns in both 2021 and 2022. He has nearly 3,200 yards from scrimmage over that span — more than all but three other players. He’s also in the final year of a four-year, $24.5 million contract that made him one of the league’s biggest bargains in that stretch.
The Los Angeles Chargers haven’t been able to reach an extension with their star tailback. Ekeler reportedly wants permission to find a team that will.
Chargers’ RB Austin Ekeler is requesting permission to speak with other teams about a potential trade after preliminary talks with the team aimed at a contract extension did not progress, his agent Cameron Weiss told ESPN.
— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) March 13, 2023
The 27-year-old dual-threat dynamo is the prototype for a modern NFL running back. He’s effective as a runner and dynamite through the air, averaging better than 4.4 yards per carry and 7.0 yards per target the last four seasons while developing into a trusted playmaker next to Justin Herbert. But betting on aging tailbacks is a gamble the Chargers are reportedly hesitant to make, particularly with limited salary cap space coming in 2024 and a megadeal for Herbert on the horizon.
That could push Ekeler to the trading block. And if it does, he’d push his way in front of a robust crop of free agent runners as the top available veteran RB of 2023. Here are the teams likely adjusting their plans to give LA general manager Tom Telesco a call.
The Bills need to take some of the weight from Josh Allen’s shoulders. Ekeler isn’t the WR2 who’d thrive in the soft defensive focus Stefon Diggs creates, but he’s thoroughly damaging as a receiver out of the backfield. His 177 receptions the last two seasons are 35 more than the next closest tailback and 80 more than any non-Diggs Buffalo player has had.
Devin Singletary is the only running back to have more than 30 catches over that stretch (78) and he’s a free agent. The Bills would have to stretch what little remaining cap space they have to bring in Ekeler, but he’d immediately upgrade an already strong unit in both phases of the offense. More importantly, any concerns about his workload would be balanced by the presence of James Cook and Nyheim Hines in the backfield.
Buffalo needs to make the jump from good to great. There’s a proven veteran feasibly available on the trade market who can do that at a position of need. Ekeler, a guy who played in regular sub-zero temperatures at Colorado’s Western State, would be a boon for the Bills.
The Dolphins are aggressively, impressively all-in on building a championship team around Tua Tagovailoa and, more importantly, his dirt cheap rookie contract. We saw that in 2022 with the additions of Tyreek Hill, Terron Armstead and others. We’ve seen that in 2023 in the recent trade for Jalen Ramsey and his pricy contract.
Acquiring Ekeler would take care of one position where 2022’s spending failed to pan out. Miami signed or traded for Chase Edmonds, Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson last season and got middling returns last year. None of those players is under contract for 2023.
That leaves a gaping hole in the backfield — only restricted free agent Salvon Ahmed is under team control. Ekeler would fill that as well as provide a much needed safety net for Tagovailoa or whatever quarterback takes the reins for the Dolphins next season.
Joe Mixon remains on the roster, but his 1.5 yards after contact per carry were a career low and ranked 34th among 41 qualified running backs last year. He’s only 26 years old, but his 1,545 total touches since 2017 are the fourth-most in the league and the three guys ahead of him — Ezekiel Elliott, Derrick Henry and Alvin Kamara — have all shown signs of slowing down.
Releasing him as a post-June 1 cut would clear more than $10 million from the Bengals’ books. That’s money that could go to Ekeler, who has less mileage and better efficiency than the younger mainstay he’d replace. While the two are very different runners, Cincinnati could opt to find a lower cost power back to replace Mixon’s pile-pushing runs while simultaneously upgrading its passing game with a tailback who has averaged a full yard more per target than Mixon over the past four years.
Like the Bills, the Bengals are a very good team. They’re in the market for greatness. The player who led the league in touchdowns each of the last two years qualifies.
The Panthers have an opportunity to win a depleted NFC South and need targets for whomever they take with the No. 1 overall pick now that D.J. Moore is a Chicago Bear. While re-signing D’Onta Foreman after an impressive season should be a priority, adding Ekeler would bring a familiar dual-threat presence to the backfield in Charlotte.
Ekeler’s viability as a short-range target with long-range capabilities would bring back memories of Christian McCaffrey in Carolina. More importantly, it would give the Panthers and whomever is going through it as a rookie in 2023 a vital safety net in the passing game.
This is a team that’s setting the foundation for its future and Ekeler is a cement truck. His presence would instill good habits and uplift the play of C.J. Stroud, Bryce Young or, sure what the hell, Anthony Richardson.
Kenneth Walker II came on strong to finish his rookie season with more than 1,000 receiving yards. But he added only 165 through the air, leaving a Seahawks team with a playoff base and a solid chunk of spending room an opportunity to add Ekeler.
Geno Smith’s breakthrough came despite concerning diversity in his passing game. Nearly 47 percent of his targets went to either DK Metcalf or Tyler Lockett. Only 11 percent went to his running backs. Adding a threat like Ekeler would help spread out that offense and create room for Metcalf, Lockett and Noah Fant to thrive.
The Rams are rebuilding, the Cardinals are a mess and the 49ers have quarterback concerns. Seattle can win the NFC West, but not without help. That’s where Ekeler can make a difference.