Patriots Trade Target: Chargers RB Austin Ekeler as New England Dual-Threat?
By Mike D'Abate,2023-03-14
The New England Patriots may be smart to consider pairing Ekeler with star running back Rhamondre Stevenson in building one of the NFL’s top backfield tandems.
FOXBORO — Might the New England Patriots backfield batter be in need of a significant ‘charge?’
With top wideout Jakobi Meyers agreeing to join the Las Vegas Raiders , New England may look to the AFC West for a potential pass-catching weapon to make life a bit easier for starting quarterback Mac Jones.
He just so happens to be pretty good at running the ball, as well.
Despite being well-set at the top of their running back corps with third-year rusher Rhamondre Stevenson, the Patriots would be smart to inquire on Ekeler’s services.
The 27-year-old is coming off of back-to-back NFL seasons with 15 or more combined touchdowns — both of the rushing and receiving variety. As such, he tied former Rams’ running back Marshall Faulk the only two players in NFL history to have 10 or more rushing touchdowns and five or more receiving touchdowns in consecutive seasons.
In 2022, Ekeler combined for 18 touchdowns and 1,637 total yards. He also finished with a franchise-high 107 receptions, five of which went for scores.
Logistically, Ekeler presents something of a defensive coverage problem — to put it mildly. Despite his prowess as a backfield pass-catcher, the Western State product is also the Chargers’ feature running back. He set career-highs with 915 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns.
Given his abilities as a dual-threat offensive weapon, Ekeler can be dangerous as a pass-catcher, as well as a rusher. If opposing teams wish to contain him, they must pair him with a legitimate cover defender. Teams typically dedicate a defensive back to the duty of covering him. Having the ability to consistently draw a member of the secondary, means one fewer defender against a potent stable of skill position players such as receivers Keenean Allen, Mike Williams and tight end Gerald Everett.
Under new Patriots’ offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien, the team will deploy an offense which features ball protection, efficient running and spreading the ball to multiple pass catchers to facilitate gaining notable yards after the catch.
Ekeler projects to fit well within O’Brien’s system.
Though they have several positional needs , running back remains an intriguing position for the Pats. With incumbent starter Damien Harris expected to test free agent waters, New England is keeping its options open. With injuries keeping Harris sidelined for six of their 17 games last season, Stevenson emerged as New England’s feature back. The second-year runner amassed 1,040 yards with five touchdowns, while averaging five yards per carry in the lead role. He also caught 69 passes for 421 yards and one touchdown as a backfield receiver. Harris, meanwhile, saw a statistical dip, gaining 462 yards with three touchdowns. Rookies Pierre Strong and Kevin Harris saw minimal time through the season. Yet, each flashed promise in their respective reserve roles, earning one rushing touchdown, respectively.
Still, the chance to add a player of Ekeler’s skill set and experience may be too great to forgo — especially given Meyers’ defection to the Raiders.
Per usual, the Patriots interest in Ekeler will ultimately come down to money. He is about to enter the final season of a four-year, $24.5 million contract he signed in 2020. Accordingly, he is set to hit the books in 2023 for $6.25 million, with a cap hit of $7.75 million. While the Patriots can easily accommodate his ‘rental fee’ for the upcoming season, Ekeler will undoubtedly be seeking a new deal from his new team. If the two sides can come to an agreeable medium, the Patriots have sufficient capital in next month’s draft to entice both Ekeler and the Chargers to sit at the negotiation table.
Lastly, Ekeler may relish the chance to avoid seeing Bill Belichick and company on the opposite side of the field. In three career games against the Pats, Ekeler has largely been held in check, logging only 21 carries for 108 yards and one touchdown. Amusing as it may be, Ekeler could neutralize his Belichickian ‘Kryptonite’ by joining the legendary coach in New England.
Brokering a deal between Ekeler and the Patriots will not be easy. However, the benefit for both sides makes it worth the watch in the coming days.
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