Chargers’ Ekeler has new role but maintains same mindset
COSTA MESA (AP) — Austin Ekeler has a new role and different training camp this year.
However, the Los Angeles Chargers running back is still trying to maintain the same approach.
Ekeler is the Chargers lead back after a breakout 2019 season and Melvin Gordon’s departure to Denver. Ekeler knows there is an increased spotlight on him this year, but he thinks that will be the only major difference.
“Now I am the starting running back but that doesn’t mean my game is going to change,” he said on Monday. “There is more of a spotlight on my name, but the offense is a similar dynamic.”
Ekeler showed last year that he could be one of the AFC’s top dual-purpose backs. He was fourth in the conference with 1,550 yards from scrimmage as well as establishing career highs in touchdowns (11), rushing (557) and receiving yards. He was 7 yards shy of becoming the second running back in team history to reach 1,000 receiving yards in a season.
That type of production earned Ekeler a four-year contract worth $24.5 million. He joined the Chargers as an undrafted free agent in 2017 and quickly made an impact on special teams before his role increased on offense.
Even though Gordon is gone, Ekeler still thinks the backs on the roster will share the workload. He has only three games of 15 or more carries in his first three years in the league but there were five games last season where Ekeler had 18 or more touches (combined carries and receptions).
Because Ekeler is more of an all-purpose back, he thinks that might be a reason why he is overlooked at times.
“I feel like people have a hard time ranking me. When they think running backs, they usually think of rushing yards and touchdowns,” he said. “I feel like I am efficient when I have the ball in my hands in terms of production.”
Los Angeles will have a new quarterback in Tyrod Taylor while Shane Steichen enters his first full season as offensive coordinator. Taylor will bring an additional aspect to the run game, since the Chargers can add zone reads to the playbook. When it comes to other changes to the offense, Ekeler doesn’t think there will be much of a learning curve because there is a lot of carryover from last year.
Ekeler is eager to see how much Justin Jackson and Joshua Kelley can add to the running game. Jackson had a calf injury last year. Kelley was drafted in the fourth round out of UCLA and could take over as a between-the-tackles runner that Gordon was the past five seasons.
“I’m excited about the atmosphere around this team. We’re moving into a new stadium, have new uniforms and have a lot of young players,” Ekeler said. “The only thing we are missing right now is that time to build chemistry, But we do have enough time to implement the offense.”
Steady WR duo Woods, Kupp adapt to change in Rams’ offense
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Robert Woods spent his workdays during this bizarre NFL offseason sneaking over fences and through unlocked doors onto the fields and tracks of various Los Angeles-area high schools.
“You might see a gate open, so you hop on the track and get your work in,” Woods said. “The next day you may see somebody watching you on the track and they’ll say, ‘Hey, what are you doing out here?’ and then find ways to get you off the track. Next thing you know, you’re shooting texts around trying to find another available track.”
Woods did some of that sneaky work with Cooper Kupp, his fellow 1,000-yard receiver with the Los Angeles Rams. These COVID-clandestine workouts with Jared Goff and other Rams were both unusual and entertaining.
“The regimen really consisted of getting kicked off just about every field here in Thousand Oaks, which was fun,” Kupp said. “If I jumped the fence, I wasn’t supposed to be out there, probably. I just feel like as long as I’m not putting anyone in danger, I was going to … ask for forgiveness instead of permission.”
Being star receivers for the Rams didn’t help much in the time of coronavirus, not when the team’s training complex was off limits and high schools weren’t interested in knowingly hosting celebrity workouts.
“It worked for Day One, but it went above to somebody, and they got us kicked off,” Woods said with a laugh.
Woods and Kupp are one of the NFL’s most prolific and most reliable pass-catching duos of the past three seasons, but the steady receivers are about to get attention that often missed them.
With their crisp route-running, sure hands and consistent play, Woods and Kupp both had at least 90 catches and 1,100 yards receiving last season, relentlessly racking up numbers in coach Sean McVay’s offense.
After running back Todd Gurley’s release and receiver Brandin Cooks’ departure in a trade by the cost-cutting Rams during the offseason, Woods and Kupp are likely to shoulder extra work and responsibility in the fall. They’re approaching it with the same workmanlike attitude that got them to where they are.
“I think we’re not like the flashiest group of receivers,” said Woods, the first Rams receiver to post back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons since Torry Holt in 2007.
“But we’re just up there with production — up there with the best, if not the best,” Woods added. “That’s the biggest goal of our whole receiving corps, not only to do what we did last year, but to be even more dominant in the passing game and the running game, to make bigger plays. You know, we break a few tackles, but we want to break them all.”
They also don’t have to do an enormous amount of learning this year: The 28-year-old Woods and the 27-year-old Kupp are heading into their fourth seasons in coach Sean McVay’s offense, and that familiarity makes everything easier.
“We’ve got such a good rapport at this point, we’re getting to the point where you don’t really have to talk to each other,” said Goff, who has been McVay’s quarterback for all four years. “You kind of just look at each other and you know what each other are thinking.”
Woods and Kupp will have help, too. Josh Reynolds is back after three seasons spent largely as the Rams’ fourth receiver, although he stepped up when Kupp went down with a season-ending knee injury in 2018, eventually making three catches in the Super Bowl.
The Rams also drafted Florida product Van Jefferson in the second round, proving that this franchise definitely loves a certain type of receiver.
Jefferson’s smooth speed, precise route-running and sure hands led to innumerable pre-draft comparisons to none other than Woods and Kupp. General manager Les Snead touted the comparison moments after drafting Jefferson, who had described both veterans as role models for his NFL career even before he knew he would be playing alongside them.
Jefferson showed up early in the Thousand Oaks area and participated in some of those not-so-secret Rams workouts, picking the veteran wideouts’ brains for info. McVay is pleased to see Woods and Kupp stepping up to take a new level of responsibility in his offense.
“Watching those two and their communication amongst one another or with Jared, it’s really impressive,” McVay said. “In some instances, it’s good as a coach where you can just step back and let them take that autonomy and ownership, because it’s certainly earned.”