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Chargers RB Ekeler wants to be 'the starter' as Gordon returns

By
Alex Butler
Los Angeles Chargers running back Austin Ekeler (30) has a league-high six touchdowns in four starts this season. He is expected to return to a backup role once Melvin Gordon is fully reintegrated into the Chargers' offense. Photo by Lori Shepler/UPI
Los Angeles Chargers running back Austin Ekeler (30) has a league-high six touchdowns in four starts this season. He is expected to return to a backup role once Melvin Gordon is fully reintegrated into the Chargers' offense. Photo by Lori Shepler/UPI | License Photo

MIAMI, Sept. 30 (UPI) -- Los Angeles Chargers running back Austin Ekeler says he wants to be "the starter" amid Melvin Gordon's return from a contract holdout.

Ekeler erupted in relief of his Pro Bowl counterpart to start the 2019 season. He had 490 yards from scrimmage and an NFL-best six touchdowns in four starts, including 122 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns in Sunday's win against the Miami Dolphins while serving as the team's feature back.

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Gordon stood on the sideline watching Ekeler in Miami, his first time attending a game with the team this season. At one point, Chargers coach Anthony Lynn told Gordon to get his helmet, but he never put Gordon into the game. Lynn announced before the game that Gordon will return as the team's starter when he is "ready."

"My role might change because Melvin is coming back," Ekeler said. "He might see some more carries. Obviously I want to be the starter, but not necessarily [saying] 'I need to be No. 1 on the depth chart.'"

RELATED Ekeler, Rivers lead Chargers to win over Dolphins

Gordon, 26, did not receive a contract extension despite his lengthy holdout. He is playing on the final year of his rookie pact. Ekeler also is playing on the final year of his contract.

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Gordon, 26, had 1,375 yards from scrimmage and a career-high 14 touchdowns in 12 starts last season. He averaged 7.4 yards per target and 5.1 yards per carry. Ekeler, 24, averaged 7.6 yards per target and 5.2 yards per carry in 2018, but had 80 fewer touches than Gordon.

Ekeler entered the league as an undrafted free agent in 2017 out of Division II Western Colorado University, a school with an undergraduate enrollment of fewer than 3,000 students. The small-school star turned fantasy football household name has a $645,000 base salary in 2019, according to Spotrac.

RELATED Chargers confirm RB Melvin Gordon will replace Austin Ekeler after holdout

Gordon forfeited nearly $1 million in salary by choosing to skip the Chargers' first three games. Gordon also subjected himself to $1.2 million in fines for his time away from the team.

Ekeler's yards from scrimmage total is higher than some of the league's best and highest-paid running backs. He has out-gained Ezkeiel Elliott more than 100 yards. He has 209 more yards than Todd Gurley.

Ekeler also dwarf's the numbers of Le'Veon Bell and Devonta Freeman. Like Gordon, Elliott also held out before the season, but he was given a $90 million contract extension by the Dallas Cowboys. Gordon could be playing elsewhere in 2020 if he doesn't get a deal from the Chargers.

The 5-foot-10, 200-pound Ekeler had three starts in his NFL career entering his 2019 campaign. He assessed his 2019 performance as "decent" and "OK," but said he won't forget his costly fumble at the goal line during the Chargers' Week 3 loss to the Detroit Lions.

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While Gordon hasn't had a front row seat for Ekeler's exploits in 2019, he has remained in contact with his teammate. Gordon refuses to use the term "backup" when asked to rank Ekeler among the league's best ball-carriers. He said Ekeler is one of the hardest workers on the team.

"He's definitely one of the top backs," Gordon said. "Not even mentioning backup backs. Let's not even put that there...He can start on any team. It's all about opportunity really."

Gordon doesn't expect Ekeler's play to change, but he said he might "steal" a few repetitions upon his return to the backfield. Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers referenced several other teammates when speaking about Ekeler's emergence, including the Chargers' offensive line.

"Austin has done a nice job for us the last couple years," Rivers said. "The first four games this year we had even more on his plate. Melvin got hurt last year and [Ekeler] stepped up in a big way. He has done a heck of a job and he's making a lot of plays in the running game and passing game."

The Chargers' backfield split is unknown in terms of the future workload distribution for Gordon and Ekeler. Lynn said he was "pleased" with the way Ekeler played and made minimal mistakes when filling in for Gordon. The Chargers coach plans to give Gordon limited reps as he eases into the backfield fold.

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"At this level everybody can play," Gordon said. "There are a few plays that kinda set some players apart, special players from average players ... but at this level when you get the opportunity to be the starter, you should make something happen."

Gordon said he hasn't been in this position before, but assumes Lynn will be "smart" about how he eases him back in.

"I don't know how it's going to work out," Gordon said. "I'd be lying if I told you I did. Come Sunday we are all going to find out."

The Chargers host the Denver Broncos in an AFC West clash Sunday in Carson, Calif. The Broncos own one of the most-generous rush defenses in the NFL this season.

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"I have things I definitely need to work at," Ekeler said. "I definitely learned a lot being the starter, as far as playing smarter and I think that's what really helped me being the starter -- just learning the game of football."

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