Four years after making the Chargers as an undrafted free agent, running back Austin Ekeler isn't resting on his early successes in the NFL.
"I feel like you have to prove yourself every year," he said on Friday. "That's how the turnover in this league works."
Entering season five, Ekeler is set be the featured back in offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi's system. This offseason has been about building relationships with a new coaching staff and grasping a different playbook, though not much changes for Ekeler on the field.
"As far as offenses in the NFL in general, I feel like pretty much all offenses run the same plays," he said. "It's just different names. It's like learning Spanish and now learning English, right? … It's like sí and yes."
A hamstring injury suffered in Week 4 last season limited Ekeler to 10 games. He still managed 933 total yards (5.5 yards per touch) and three total touchdowns.
Since entering the league, Ekeler has become one of the most sure-handed backs in football. His 81.2 percent catch percentage is the highest among RBs since 2017, per Stathead.
Ekeler's NFL story started at Jack Hammett Sports Complex in 2017 as a special teamer. The grind required to make a 53-man roster then allowed him the opportunity to showcase his ability as a runner.
Now, he's among the top in the league.
"He's a complete player," head coach Brandon Staley said. "That's why he made it. He was a complete special teams player initially. He's a complete back. He can run the ball. He can run the route tree. He can pass protect. He's an intense competitor. He comes out here and does his job at a high level consistently and that example is not exclusive to running backs.
"His example is set for the whole team and we've got a lot of guys like that. [CB] Chris Harris Jr. was undrafted. [G] Matt Feiler was undrafted. We've got a lot of good examples of that on our football team and you can't have enough of it because football's the ultimate meritocracy."
Ekeler scoring touchdowns – on the ground or through the air – should help the Chargers win football games in the fall. It may benefit your fantasy football team, too.
"Hey, I'm going to get the ball, I'm going to make things happen," he said. "They're going to throw me the ball, I'm going to make things happen. If you want to get fantasy points you better have me on your team. So, that's all I got to say. If I'm healthy, I'm going to score you points."
A New Position for Strap
Cornerback Chris Harris Jr. has a strong understanding of the new defense being implemented in Los Angeles. Head coach Brandon Staley referred to him Friday as a "another defensive coordinator" who "thinks like a coach."
Harris Jr. has been able to share that knowledge with teammates who may have a steeper learning curve.
But it's not all familiar for the 11-year veteran. Harris Jr. is working at a third position he said he hasn't lined up at since his rookie season: safety.
"I just have to get comfortable with it," he said. "Usually I can just line up at corner and play nickel and I'm fairly comfortable with that, but now I have to move around a lot more and get the communication right, kind of learn how my corners are playing, things like that. So, it's new to me but it's been fun, though."
Harris. Jr. added that the coaching staff wants him "to play all over the field." He said that flexibility will allow the defense to counter anything opposing offenses try to throw at them this season, and vice versa.
"It's going to be hard for teams to identify what we're doing," Harris Jr. said. "One down, I may be in the slot. Next time, I may be at left corner or right corner. You never know where I'm going to be at.
"You never know where Derwin [James Jr.'s] going to be at. He might be at safety. He might be deep. He might be blitzing. He might be at D-end. He might be at middle linebacker. So, you never know where we're going to be at."
Odds and Ends
- Head coach Brandon Staley said center Corey Linsley was back Friday after being held out of Thursday's practice: "We were just being cautious yesterday," Staley said. "He was back here today and felt good. We just wanted to make sure that in this early phase that if you're feeling off, let's not put you out there and then have something bigger happen. But he was out there today. He competed well and felt good. It was good to have him back out there."
- Linebacker Kyzir White had an interception during Friday's practice: "As you're seeing, the way that the NFL game is now, you need guys that can run in the second level," Staley said of White. "The way he plays, he can move like a safety, but he hits like a linebacker. He has that contact ability like a linebacker, but that movement ability like a DB. That's where you're seeing the modern NFL go. He's been a really fun guy to get to know and coach. He had a good day out there today."
- Staley praised veteran tight end Jared Cook, who's had a nice start to camp: "You guys saw him today in the red area," Staley said. "He's a big target. Yesterday, he caught a really nice route up the seam. He has tremendous feel. Then, you can really get a feel for his size and body control and his hands. When you put that together, you see why this guy has played so long and everybody is dying to have him on their team. He's a great guy, number one, but, then, he brings so much to the table from a skillset in the passing game. Even in the run game, too. This guy has seen every look that you can give an NFL player. Just a great mentor for that room. We're just really thankful that he's here."
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