The Los Angeles Chargers running back group has turned into more of a committee group since the departure of Melvin Gordon. Though that parting made sense at the time due to the relationship having deteriorated and Gordon playing poorly, they have been unable to come up with a three-down back since then. And though anything’s possible, right now that still looks to be the case – but in all likelihood, the Chargers offense will be closer to a pass-first unit now anyway and will be relying less heavily on the running game to begin with. Having an improved offensive line should help with the performance of the halfback corps as well. While the top of the depth chart isn’t expected to change, let’s still take a look at the Chargers running backs and where everybody else will end up, especially since there is a new addition.
Looking at the 2021 Los Angeles Chargers Running Backs
Ekeler is the primary starter of sorts now for the Chargers at running back, and he is definitely very talented. However, he is not a three-down back. He is an excellent receiving back as well as a solid runner, but you’ll seldom ever see him getting 20+ carries in a game. Especially with former Saints offensive staffer Joe Lombardi running the offense now, his role may actually be comparable to that of Alvin Kamara’s, and they’re not far off in terms of ability.
The question would then become – in the absence of a three-down back and with Ekeler playing a Kamara-like role, as usual – who would be playing the Latavius Murray role?
To answer the above question, Justin Jackson would seem to be the most obvious choice available right now. He is a talented runner with a good amount of speed on him, and he’s averaged at least four yards a carry every season he’s been in. The problem? He can’t stay healthy. He only played seven games in 2019 and nine in 2020.
At one time he actually seemed like a possible candidate to become the next primary runner for the team, but he’s never moved out of his change-of-pace role. That’s generally worked out fine, but if he can’t reliably be on the field, that does hamper things a little for the Chargers. While they do have some potential elsewhere on the depth chart, they lack any other proven play-makers. Nevertheless, when he’s healthy, Jackson will likely still be sharing carries with Ekeler, barring a breakout from one of the other guys on the roster.
Kelley is the only other returning member from last year’s active roster. He was a rookie last year and got off to a promising start in his first game with 60 yards and a touchdown, but it went extremely downhill from there. He fumbled in two straight weeks, which ultimately got his snaps going dramatically down. Kelley ended up finishing with only 3.2 yards per carry. One could blame the offensive line somewhat for that, but he still struggled more than anyone else on the team – even more than Kalen Ballage, of all people, who had a very minor bounce-back last year.
He is more of a downhill and physical runner, so he could still have his uses – particularly on the goal line since strength isn’t really Jackson’s suit. And given his first game, the ability is there. But if he cannot return to that – especially with the improved offensive line – he will likely not rise high on the depth chart.
Rountree was this year’s running back selection in the Draft, going in the sixth round. In terms of skill set, he’s actually somewhat similar to Joshua Kelley in terms of being a more physical runner. Based on his highlights, one main difference looks to be having better vision for finding blocks or holes in the defense. He’s not much of a pass-catcher, though, which does slightly limit his utility in the current NFL. Assuming that his ball security remains good, he may be able to eke his way out over Kelley for playing time in goal-line and short-yardage situations. At the moment it’s hard to see him getting other opportunities unless Jackson gets injured again – or he really dazzles in training camp. It may also depend upon whether the new regime prefers a more physical or speedy option to go alongside Ekeler.
Bradwell was an undrafted free agent from last year. He was active for two games but never got a single carry, and spent the rest of the year on the practice squad. Barring a breakout, he will likely spend the season there again at best. If the Chargers weren’t willing to give him carries when their running backs were decimated by injuries, that doesn’t bode well for him.
The Chargers still don’t appear to have a bell-cow or a guy who can do everything on the running backs roster, but there are runners who are good at different things. Ekeler will remain the top pass-catching option as well as getting a good share of the carries, and Jackson should be the early favorite to be the other primary runner alongside him, at least as long as he’s healthy. Between Rountree and Kelley, one would think that they should be able to come out with a decent short-yardage guy in there somewhere – and one of them may get their chance to do other things with the ball as well.
Regardless, with the offense more likely to lean on Justin Herbert than on the running game, whatever holes are in this group shouldn’t hurt the team as much – as well as the offensive line giving them more room to run this year.
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