As an undrafted player, few positions are more difficult to break into the league than running back. However, Chargers RB Austin Ekeler and Broncos RB Phillip Lindsay have defied the odds through a similar career path and have set the standard for undrafted running backs in the NFL.
Beyond their position and their undrafted status, the similarities between the two are uncanny. Both were born in Colorado (Ekeler in Eaton and Lindsay in Denver), and each attended college in their home state (Ekeler at Western Colorado and Lindsay at CU Boulder). And the pair will go head-to-head this Sunday as the Chargers take on the Broncos in Carson.
“(Ekeler’s) tough, he’s real tough,” said Lindsay. “He started the undrafted free agent thing. (I saw) him last year before I got (to the NFL), (and) he was doing really well. Now he’s taking advantage of what’s given to him. I’m proud of him and he’s just gotta keep rolling.”
After making the Broncos roster as their third-string running back, Lindsay was immediately thrust into action due to injuries. He would take advantage of his opportunity, as he totaled over 100 scrimmage yards in each of his first two games, becoming the first undrafted running back in NFL history to do so.
Lindsay finished the 2018 season with ten touchdowns and 1,037 rushing yards, the second-best rushing total by an undrafted running back in a single season in NFL history, and he only started eight games all season.
“He can take the ball the distance every time he touches it,” Chargers linebacker Thomas Davis said. “So you have to understand where he is at all times.”
Lindsay’s hot start in 2018 is comparable to Ekeler’s start this season, as Ekeler’s 36 points scored ranks fifth in the league, his 490 total yards from scrimmage ranks sixth and he ranks first with six total touchdowns.
“He’s made a lot of progress,” Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn said. “He’s proven that he can be a starting running back in this league… I’ve been very proud of him. He’s done a good job. He works hard. He’s a pro’s pro.”
Ekeler and Lindsay are listed at 5-foot-10, 200 pounds and 5-foot-8, 190 pounds, respectively. Chargers linebacker Denzel Perryman attests that because of their similar size, the two running backs possess a similar style of play, a sentiment shared by Ekeler.
“We are pretty similar, I’d say,” Ekeler said. “Because if you watch him, it’s not real flashy either. It’s like, one cut and run-- He’s fast.”
Since both running backs are small and compact, these one-cut routes become their bread and butter-- something Ekeler witnessed Lindsay do first-hand in the Chargers’ loss to the Broncos last November.
“I remember last year… boom, (Lindsay) ran a wide-zone to the left (and) boom, one cut, and then right down the sideline on us,” Ekeler said. “Those are just things that I look forward to in a run-- a one-cut run all the way down to the end zone.”
Ekeler then elaborated on how running backs like Lindsay and him differ from that of a larger tailback like Melvin Gordon.
“(Gordon can throw) guys off of him,” Ekeler said. “I’m not that type of runner, (and) I don’t have the body type for that. (But Lindsay and I) are similar body types and similar runners.”
While the two running backs have yet to spend a significant amount of time together, Ekeler and Lindsay train alongside Colorado-native and Panthers RB Christian McCaffery at the same gym in Colorado during the offseason.
Three top NFL running backs from one state all at one complex? Not bad for Colorado.
“I feel like there’s a lot of good talent here in Colorado,” Lindsay said. “(If you’re a team), you just have to give it a chance. There’s so many kids in California and Texas that you get overshadowed, (but) if you’re good, you’re good.”
While Lindsay and Ekeler share a similar background and skill set, Ekeler attests that at the end of the day, they’re still two different players.
“I don’t compare myself to anyone else except myself in the past,” Ekeler said. “Comparing yourself to another running back, yeah that’s great, but at the end, it comes down to yourself, because that’s really where you can learn.”
Ekeler will take on Lindsay and the Broncos this Sunday at ROKiT Field at Dignity Health Sports Park at 1:05 p.m. PT.