By JOE REEDY AP Sports Writer
The Chargers have avoided a holdout by running back Austin Ekeler by adding $1.75 million in incentives to his contract for the upcoming season, according to a person with knowledge of the deal.
The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity on Tuesday because the Chargers have not announced the restructuring. ESPN was first to report the deal.
Ekeler is entering the final season of a four-year, $24.5 million extension.
Ekeler, who has scored an NFL-high 38 touchdowns over the past two seasons, could earn as much as $8 million in the 2023 season.
The move also helps the Chargers avoid a repeat of the messy situation they faced four years ago when Melvin Gordon held out until four weeks into the regular season because of a contract dispute.
Ekeler earlier this spring requested and received permission from the Chargers to seek a trade opportunity.
“I feel like there’s no timeline on it,” Ekeler said on March 21 of any artificial trade deadline. “I’m so underpaid right now as far as my contract and what I contribute to the team, it’s like, I’m relentlessly pursuing this (deal). I want to get something long-term done. I want a team that wants me long-term. Because I’m at the peak of my game, right? As long as I’m healthy, I’m going to score another 20 touchdowns. I’m going to have another 1,600 all-purpose yards. I’m getting half my value of what I could be getting.
“I’m relentlessly pursuing someone who wants me for the long term.”
Ekeler stressed then that his desire for a bigger and better deal was strictly business. He also acknowledged the market value for top running backs isn’t what it’s been in the past, citing the risk of injury that teams face.
“It literally has nothing to do with the relationship (with the Chargers),” he said. “I’ve made great relationships there. Grown there. That’s where I started, right? So, I want to be there, but on the right terms. Because I know, look, I can’t play forever. I think I can play for a long time – just the way I play and the way I treat myself and my mentality. There’s not a lot of 5-foot-9 running backs doing what I’m doing, and there’s a reason behind that that’s mostly (mental), and I’ve been able to skirt the injury bug.
“It’s like, if there’s an opportunity to get more value, then why would you not jump on that? Why would you not go and at least try out the options? And worst-case scenario – it’s not even a worst-case, really – but, OK, go play on the last year of your deal in L.A., then become a free agent?”
Ekeler has spent his entire six-year career with the Chargers in 2017 after signing as an undrafted free agent out of Western Colorado. Ekeler was absent Monday as the Chargers began voluntary organized team activities, but even in the midst of negotiations, Coach Brandon Staley said he expected Ekeler to be at the team’s mandatory minicamp when it starts on June 13.
It is unclear whether Ekeler will now report to OTAs. He opted last offseason to not attend because of other business pursuits.
“Austin is one of the top backs in the league over the last two seasons. He’s been a captain for us. We really have the utmost respect for him and the situation,” Staley said Monday when the Chargers began their on-field work. “It’s been respectful on both sides.”
Ekeler led the league with 18 touchdowns from scrimmage last season and became the fifth running back in league history with at least 100 receptions. His 107 catches were tied for the second-most by a running back in a season.
He also rushed for 915 yards, including a pair of 100-yard games.
Since entering the NFL in 2017, Ekeler ranks 11th among active players with 7,175 total scrimmage yards. Ekeler and Hall of Famer Lenny Moore as the only players in NFL history to record at least 25 rushing and 25 receiving touchdowns in their first six seasons.
Staley is trying to emphasize the running game more after hiring Kellen Moore as his offensive coordinator.
The Chargers had the third-worst rushing attack in the league last season and the second-biggest discrepancy between passing and running plays (65% pass to 35% run).
With Moore as the offensive coordinator in Dallas last season, the Cowboys were 53% pass to 47% run, which was tied for the ninth-highest percentage of run plays.
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