The NFL will Probably Miss Out on the Next Austin Ekeler

Jason B. Hirschhorn

LOS ANGELES -- When Austin Ekeler applied his signature to a four-year, $24.5 million contract this offseason, he secured both his financial future as well as his place as the top dog in the Los Angeles Chargers' backfield. The deal put into writing what many around the NFL already knew; Ekeler's gifts as a runner, receiver, and locker-room leader made him an essential part of the team culture general manager Tom Telesco and head coach Anthony Lynn continue to build. With more money in his pocket and new responsibilities with his team, Ekeler effectively became one of the faces of a franchise that hopes to establish a foothold in Los Angeles over the coming years.

But his career began in a decidedly less glamorous manner. Ekeler didn't arrive in the league as a heralded prospect from a major college program like many of his teammates. Instead, he emerged from Western State, a small Division II school in Colorado that had previously produced just three NFL players in its history and none since the early 1990s. Unsurprisingly, Ekeler went unchosen during the 2017 NFL Draft. He eventually signed with the Chargers as one of 15 undrafted free agents.

Every year, hundreds of prospects go undrafted and have to beat out better-pedigreed players for spots on final rosters. Few actually make it through the cuts, with the vast majority of teams keeping just one or two undrafted rookies on their 53-man roster. In order to beat the odds, undrafted free agents have to show out during offseason workouts, training camp, and especially in the preseason. To secure his roster spot back in 2017, Ekeler needed a standout performance in the final preseason game. His multiple tackles on special teams that day ultimately convinced the coaching staff to keep him around.

The undrafted free agents of 2020 will not have all those opportunities. Due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the NFL has turned rookie minicamp and organized-team activities into virtual learning programs. Though the league remains hopeful the season can transpire as scheduled, complications related to the virus could force the delay or the shortening of training camp, further reducing the opportunities for undrafted free agents to develop and carve out niches with their teams. Even the preseason could fall in jeopardy depending on how well states can implement medical testing for the virus and slow the spread.

"Man, it's so rough," Ekeler says. "Honestly, it's pretty sad just as far as how unfortunate it is for those guys. The opportunity is already small, but now it's even smaller. I don't know honestly if I would have made the team if I didn't have OTAs. For me, I needed OTAs to go out there, try 100%, and mess up. Because I went and messed up and was like, 'OK, these are the things that I need in the next month to go work on.' And these guys aren't getting that right now."

Even if training camp and the preseason unfold as they would absent the pandemic, the next Ekeler might have already slipped through the cracks. Ekeler himself didn't register on the NFL's radar until he delivered eye-popping workout numbers at his pro day in 2017. Because of virus-related closures earlier this year, many schools had to cancel their pro days, dealing a critical blow to less-heralded prospects who hadn't participated in the scouting combine earlier in the offseason. Undoubtedly, many who might have garnered interest from NFL teams

But the undrafted free agents that did manage to land contracts still face a steeper learning curve than normal. Though coaching staffs will do their best to prepare their players during video calls, nothing can fully replicate the learning experience of live reps and instruction on a football field.

"They're going to go in there, and they're going to be smacked with all this information," Ekeler says. "And the mental game right now on Zoom meetings is nowhere near seeing it actually on the field. You know, at 100% full speed, you're at a different level. You don't get to see this bird's-eye view of the entire field. You get to see from a point of view that's actually in the action with things moving around. These guys are missing out on some live reps that are so crucial for your development in this game."

And therein lies the problem. The massive jump from college to the pros presents myriad issues to even the most talented rookies. That transition looks daunting even under the best circumstances, and this offseason has proven far from ideal. As more opportunities for live reps vanish, undrafted free agents will see their chances of making the NFL go along with it.

"There's no telling if the season starts on time," Ekeler says. "Even if the season does start on time, they already lost six weeks or whatever the OTAs and stuff is. But say we're pushing it back. Now it's like OK, are we going to have time for these 90 people on the roster to get a chance to make the team? How do we evaluate everyone on this team right now? It's strange and it'll be interesting to see how it plays out."

Every rookie class has an Ekeler or two, diamonds in the rough waiting to be uncovered. Due to the pandemic, the NFL will probably miss out on those gems this year.

-- Jason B. Hirschhorn is an award-winning sports journalist and Pro Football Writers of America member. Follow him on Twitter: @by_JBH