Ekeler might be wise to seek a position change from running back to slot receiver, with the franchise tag for receivers increasing from $16 million to nearly $20 million over the past five years.
“I understand the league has that tool on their side to utilize that in the way and when they want to,” Ekeler told reporters about the franchise tag. “But it’s just really hurt our market. … Sure, you say we have a shorter life. People say we get hurt. Sure, you can look at numbers, but everyone gets hurt in the NFL.
“As far as players in general, we only have a certain amount of time to play this game. To say, ‘No, you’re going to have to risk it all again on a one-year guaranteed contract,’ and tell someone that and put them in that situation, and not give them a choice, is just tough for me to accept, even though it is the way it is.”
The issue of the devaluation of running backs is straightforward. They must spend three years in college during what could be their prime earning years before becoming eligible for the NFL Draft. Once in the league, top runners like 2023 first-round selection Bijan Robinson sign cost-restrictive rookie deals that also limit their ability to hit free agency for up to five years.
Running backs typically take the most hits of any player on offense and therefore have the shortest shelf life of any player, and the position is viewed as fungible because talented players like Ekeler can sometimes be found in the later stages of the draft or as undrafted free agents.
“In sports, as in business, value is created by scarcity,” former NFL executive and agent Andrew Brandt wrote in Sports Illustrated. “The most valuable jobs are the ones where it is hardest to find people with the competence and excellence to do them. Those positions in the NFL tend to be quarterback, edge rusher, offensive tackle, cornerback and, in recent years, even wide receiver. As for running backs, well, the universal feeling is that ‘You can find them’ without the need to spend significant cash or resources.”
Ekeler appears to be an outlier. He has always taken good care of himself and should be a mainstay for new Chargers offensive coordinator Kellen Moore. But time will tell if betting on himself in 2023 will pay off for a 28-year-old running back at a devalued position where other elite runners are having trouble obtaining their value.
As he has done in the past, Ekeler is keeping it simple.
“I’ll bet on myself any day of the week,” he said. “That’s what I’ve been doing all my life.”
Eric D. Williams has reported on the NFL for more than a decade, covering the Los Angeles Rams for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Chargers for ESPN and the Seattle Seahawks for the Tacoma News Tribune. Follow him on Twitter at @eric_d_williams.