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Ekeler brings versatility to Commanders' 2-back system

Los Angeles Chargers running back Austin Ekeler (30) carries the ball during an NFL football game against the Las Vegas Raiders, Monday, Oct. 4, 2021 in Inglewood, Calif. The Chargers won 28-14. (Ben Liebenberg via AP)
Los Angeles Chargers running back Austin Ekeler (30) carries the ball during an NFL football game against the Las Vegas Raiders, Monday, Oct. 4, 2021 in Inglewood, Calif. The Chargers won 28-14. (Ben Liebenberg via AP)

Austin Ekeler had plenty of reasons to move from Los Angeles to the DMV to play for the Washington Commanders. For starters, they were the team most interested in his skill set, but there was also the prospect of reuniting with run game coordinator and running backs coach Anthony Lynn, who was Ekeler's head coach with the Chargers from 2017-20.

Those were likely part of the pitch that Washington gave to the soon-to-be-29-year-old running back, but what also interested him was what he could do in the backfield and who he would share it with.

"It was an opportunity to come in and be this two-back backfield," Ekeler said. "That really was intriguing to me."

Ekeler, who recorded 1,000 scrimmage yards for the fourth time in his seven-year career, will be joining third-year pro Brian Robinson Jr. to revitalize a backfield that showed flashes despite a lack of attention in 2023. Where Robinson will be the primary back between the tackles, Ekeler is expected to be versatile threat he's been his whole career, providing Washington with an offensive weapon that's lead the league in scoring twice.

And Ekeler predicts there will be a lot of scoring from him as a piece of Washington's new backfield.

"I'm gonna score some touchdowns for you, that's for sure, if you get me in the red zone and find a way to get me the ball in some space," Ekeler said.

Being a complementary piece of a running back room is not new for Ekeler, who has spent the last four seasons as the Chargers' starter. Prior to Melvin Gordon joining the Broncos in 2020, the two split time in the backfield with Ekeler playing mostly as the backup.

While Ekeler's snaps were naturally reduced while sharing time with Gordon, those three seasons were when he felt the best in his career. His numbers were obviously better when he was in that No. 1 spot, but it wasn't as if his performances before then were lackluster. From 2017-19, Ekeler accounted for 22 touchdowns and 3,047 total yards, averaging nearly seven yards per touch.

Robinson's skill set is drastically different to that of Gordon, who's about 15 pounds lighter than the former Crimson Tide back. Robinson is known more for his physicality, as half of his 733 yards in 2023 came after contact. Robinson's 16 broken tackles were also tied for 10-most among running backs.

Versatility is not a foreign concept to Robinson -- several of his best plays have featured him as a receiver and drastically improved his usage in his second season, going from 60 yards to 368 and four touchdowns -- but it's a critical piece of Ekeler's game. He's either ranked first or second among running backs in receiving years in three of the last five seasons.

Excitement was in the air the Washington Commanders' incoming free agents made their first trips to the facility. Check out the top photos of their arrival.

Ekeler hadn't spoken to Robinson at the time of his introductory press conference but was looking forward to getting to know his new teammates and discussing how they can mix their traits to help get Washington back to winning in 2024.

"You're always trying to be the most competitive that you can possibly be trying to sustain that as long as you possibly can," Ekeler said.

Ekeler dealt with a high ankle sprain that kept him sidelined for three weeks in 2023. That didn't stop him from recording 1,064 total yards with six touchdowns, including 179 carries for 628 yards on the ground.

A mixture of injuries and scheme led to Ekeler putting out his worst statistical performance since 2020. His 44.9 yards per game average -- his lowest since 2019 -- was still better than most of the Commanders' options in 2023. Robinson's 48.9 average led the team by a wide margin, with Antonio Gibson's 16.6 coming in second.

That imbalance contributed to creating an offense that barely used the running game and a league-low run percentage. Ekeler's hoping that he can inject some of his traits into a young running back room, and just because the Commanders are in what some would call a rebuilding year (head coach Dan Quinn prefers to call it a recalibration) doesn't mean that they need to wait years for a turnaround.

"I know it's been done before," Ekeler said. "I've seen it. We saw it last year, too, with the Texans how they went through their season and had a bounce back season. So, it's been done before, and those things can be done again.

"I'm looking forward to bringing some energy over here and getting ourselves on the right path."

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