COSTA MESA, Calif. -- Coach Brandon Staley, who has previously been firm that Austin Ekeler is the Chargers' top running back despite their rushing struggles, hinted that changes could be coming to the Los Angeles backfield.
"Competition for carries is going to be something that you can see happening," Staley said Wednesday. "We're going to keep exploring, making adjustments, so that we can find that rhythm that I've been talking about. That's certainly one way to do it."
The last time Staley mentioned there would be competition in a position group, it was the team's defensive backs, after the Chargers' Week 11 loss to the Green Bay Packers. In that game, the Chargers allowed 322 yards and two touchdowns from quarterback Jordan Love, the first 300 from a Packers quarterback since Aaron Rodgers in 2021.
"We know that Austin is a good running back," Staley said. "We just haven't found any rhythm in the last couple of weeks in the run game. Just need to keep after it and keep working hard in practice."
Ekeler started this season strong. In Week 1, he had 16 carries for 117 yards, a touchdown and 4 catches for 47 yards. But he suffered a high ankle sprain in that contest that kept him out until Week 5. Since returning, Ekeler has struggled.
Among running backs with at least 100 carries since Week 5, he has the fewest rushing yards (329) and yards per carry (3.0). He has 28 straight carries that have gone for 6 or fewer yards, tied for the second-longest streak by any player this season, only trailing his own 48-carry stretch from Weeks 1 through 8.
In Sunday's win over the New England Patriots, Ekeler had 14 carries for 18 yards, a season low.
Joshua Kelley, who has been Ekeler's backup for the past four seasons, could see an increased workload if changes are coming for this group.
Kelley started the three games Ekeler was injured but the rushing offense didn't look much different. Kelley gained 116 yards over that span, averaging 2.6 yards per carry.
Isaiah Spiller, the Chargers' fourth-round pick in 2022, is another option. Spiller has been active for five games this season.
Ekeler had been one of the NFL's best pass-catching running backs. Last season, he led the team with 107 receptions, and has the most receptions of any running back since 2019 with 354.
But Ekeler has had issues with drops since he returned in Week 5. He has the third-most drops among running backs with 4, and his drop rate of 9.5% is the third-highest among running backs with at least 30 targets, according to TruMedia. Before this season, Ekeler's season high in drops was five in 2021, and his drop rate was never higher than 5.4%.
"I gotta make sure that I do my part and make the plays. I can't give up the ball. I gotta make sure I'm playing at the standard I'm supposed to be playing at," Ekeler said after Los Angeles' Week 12 loss to the Baltimore Ravens, which was his second straight game with a fumble.
Some of Ekeler's struggles running the ball can be placed on the Chargers' offensive line. Ekeler is averaging 1.44 yards before contact since Week 5, according to TruMedia.
Among running backs with 100 carries since Week 5, he is just one of four averaging under 2 yards before contact and the only player under 1.69 -- a sign that the offensive line is struggling to create gaps for him to run through before being hit by defenders.
In that same span, the Chargers' run block win rate is 26%, which is the seventh worst in the NFL.
"Just being on the same page really is the biggest thing we can work on," offensive guard Jamaree Salyer said. "It's kind of holding us back. It's not talent. It's not effort or anything like that. It's being on the same page."
Ekeler's struggles come at a particularly inopportune time. He is in the final year of a four-year, $24.5 million contract. He requested a trade in the offseason after he and the Chargers couldn't come to terms on a long-term extension. Then he rescinded that trade request later in the offseason, returning for a revised contract with added incentives, but no additional years.
For Ekeler, this season was essential in showing the Chargers, and the rest of the NFL, that he could be worthy of a lucrative contract extension before hitting free agency in the offseason. Instead, it has been the opposite.