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Why This Chargers Running Back Will Break Out in 2023

Joshua Kelley

The Los Angeles Chargers are lacking that second running back behind the electric Austin Ekeler. The depth behind Ekeler has been… well- not great. Isaiah Spiller was a highly touted rookie prospect but did next to nothing in his rookie year. Entering the NFL at 20, he still has time to develop, but there is another fourth-round running back ready to make a major leap in 2023: Joshua Kelley.

Why Joshua Kelley Is Primed For A Breakout 2023 Season

Breakout Flashes Last Year

To understand why Joshua Kelley is primed to break out in 2023, we must look at his 2022 season. Kelley and Spiller spent the offseason fighting for the RB2 job, a battle that will happen again this year. After winning, Kelley spent the early part of the year relieving Austin Ekeler, as Ekeler has openly stated multiple times, he needs a running mate to ensure he’s fresh. Kelley did just that, exceeding expectations.

During the course of the 2022 season, Kelley played a total of 29% of the team’s offensive snaps, which is his career-high, even while missing four games. During this span, he also had 47% of the special teams snaps, becoming a core special teamer for Ryan Ficken and his team.

Not only did Kelley play regularly, but he played well.

An important stat is yards after contact per attempt. This shows how a player creates on his own, disregarding the strength of his offensive line. Kelley’s yards after contact after every carry was an average of 1.8 yards, which meant he was a very good leg-churning back and creator with his legs. This number would rank 22nd for all running backs across the league, ahead of players like the Saints newly acquired Jamaal Williams, Panthers’ Miles Sanders, and Bengals’ Joe Mixon.

To continue, plenty worried about Kelley’s ball security due to his very rollercoaster-like rookie season. During this offseason that was a big focus for Kelley, and it showed on the field. The UCLA product did not fumble once on his 83 total touches.

Season Wrap Up

Kelley showed flashes prior to his Week 6 injury. During this timeframe, he averaged 4.6 carries per game, which he turned into 20.8 yards per game. This totals to a 4.5 yards per carry average, which would have ranked T-17th for all running backs if he continued on this pace all season.

Kelley had his best outing in the last game before his injury, recording 10 attempts for 49 yards and a touchdown. He also picked up 33 yards through the air. Unfortunately, after this game, he missed a portion of his season due to an MCL sprain.

Kelley returned later in the season and proved that his early-season success was not a fluke. Coming back into the lineup, Kelley averaged 4 yards per carry on 46 attempts.

Joshua Kelley finished the season with 69 carries for 287 yards and two touchdowns, averaging out to 4.2 yards per carry. Although it’s not going to be his main role, his 101 receiving yards on 14 receptions is something to mention.

Generally, running backs with under 70 carries and 300 yards are something to forget about, but for the Los Angeles Chargers, this is important. The Chargers running game has struggled for years, and having a running back start to step up is very important. Kelley showed during his 2022 season he is ready for the job, and if he continues at the trajectory he has been on, he’s going to be a strong piece of this 2023 Chargers rushing attack.


The most important part of Joshua Kelley’s 2023 breakout season might not even be his own improvement. The hiring of former Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator Kellen Moore will drastically change and more than likely improve this running game. Moore’s rushing offense last year ranked sixth in attempts, ninth in yards, and second in rushing touchdowns. Obviously, the Chargers don’t have Tony Pollard or Ezekiel Elliot, but they have players who are similar in style.

Joe Lombardi wasn’t very creative with his running backs. The hiring of Moore will allow all running backs, but in specific, Joshua Kelley, to be used in a manner that specifically meets his strengths and abilities.

Joshua Kelley would fall under the now-declining Ezekiel Elliot role – the slashing, between-the-tackles runner that will take the load off the main rushing and receiving threat.

Elliot had 876 rushing yards and 12 rushing touchdowns, as well as 92 receiving yards on 55% of the offensive snaps. He only averaged 3.8 yards per carry and did not create very well on his own, averaging 1.5 yards after contact. Elliot was primarily used as a heavy-hitting, power back who will pick up tough yards on third and shorts, and on the goalline.

Joshua Kelley will not get that same workload but will have a similar role in this offense. He also proved he can create better than Elliot, ranking ahead of the veteran in yards after contact per attempt last season. Austin Ekeler will obviously be the Tony Pollard-esque player for Moore, using Ekeler as both a rushing and receiving threat. Kelley will be that inside running, bowling ball that will hammer down tired defenses. Kellen Moore uses 12 personnel as much as anyone, and having that extra blocker for his outside zone-based scheme, will really help Kelley use his vision to create yards.

What to Expect From Joshua Kelley

Kelley isn’t a perfect running back and more than likely will never be. But a secondary weapon from the backfield doesn’t have to be. With a creative offensive mind, and a player who has worked hard to get himself in the best shape of his life, opportunities and plays will arrive. Kelley showed plenty of flashes during his 2022 campaign, using his physicality and stature to run over opposing defenders.

This is Kelley’s make-or-break season, and with his contract expiring soon, he has all pressure in the world to become that strong #2 behind the starting running back, Austin Ekeler.

Main Photo: Isaiah Downing – USA Today Sports


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