Eaton’s Austin Ekeler signs NFL undrafted free agent deal with Los Angeles Chargers | MyWindsorNow.com

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Eaton’s Austin Ekeler signs NFL undrafted free agent deal with Los Angeles Chargers

Western State Colorado University senior running back Austin Ekeler, left, runs against the Colorado School of Mines on Sept. 24 in Gunnison. Western State won 45-31. After his stellar career with the Mountaineers, Ekeler, an Eaton alum, is entering the NFL Draft, which begins today and concludes Saturday.

What is an undrafted free agent?

» An incoming rookie can be an undrafted free agent if he is not chosen in the NFL Draft.

» The player is free to sign a contract with any team, immediately after the draft concludes. The player then will compete for a spot on the active roster once training camps begins in July.

» Past notable undrafted free agent success stories include quarterback Tony Romo (Dallas Cowboys), running back Priest Holmes (Kansas City Chiefs, Baltimore Ravens), quarterback Warren Moon (Houston Oilers, Minnesota Vikings, Seattle Seahawks, Kansas City), kicker Adam Vinatieri (New England Patriots, Indianapolis Colts), quarterback Kurt Warner (St. Louis Rams, New York Giants, Arizona Cardinals), wide receiver Wes Walker (Miami Dolphins, New England, Denver Broncos, St. Lois Rams), tight end Antonio Gates (San Diego Chargers) and wide receiver Rod Smith (Denver).

Austin Ekeler was a man conflicted Saturday afternoon.

On one hand, as the final picks of the NFL Draft were announced, he knew seeing his name flash across the marquee would be an honor in itself.

On the other hand, he knew exactly where he wanted to begin his pro football career, and going undrafted would be the only way to assure he had complete control of his destination.

Ekeler, a 2013 Eaton High School graduate, soaked in congratulatory messages Saturday night while he was exactly where he should be: surrounded by family and close friends at his mother Suzanne Ekeler-Adams' home in Windsor.

But as he and agent Cameron Weiss worked out the details of his first pro contract, he made sure he's headed to exactly where he, as a professional football player, wants to be: Southern California.

Ekeler, a former standout at Eaton and Western State Colorado University, signed an undrafted free agent contract with the Los Angeles Chargers.

"It's just a big relief just to know that, hey, I'm getting the chance," Ekeler said in a phone interview Saturday night.

The contract is a standard three-year deal, which Ekeler announced during a live Instagram broadcast shortly after the NFL Draft ended.

At the University of Colorado's pro day last month, Ekeler, 5-foot-9, 199 pounds, recorded a vertical leap of 40.5 inches, a 40-yard dash time of 4.43 seconds and a broad jump of 10-foot-8, numbers reserved for an elite running back prospect.

The Chargers will move back to the Los Angeles area, playing out of the StubHub Center in Carson, Calif., this upcoming season after playing in San Diego the past 56 seasons. The StubHub Center will be the team's home until the Los Angeles Stadium at Hollywood Park is built in Inglewood, with a scheduled opening in time for the 2019 season.

Ekeler knew if he was drafted, the third and final day of the draft would likely be the day.

However, he admitted, going into the last couple rounds of the draft, he wasn't all too distraught at the possibility of not having his name called on the big stage in Philadelphia. If he were to go undrafted, he would need no time at all to deliberate. He was bound to wear Chargers blue and gold.

"You still want to be drafted," Ekeler said. "I feel like it's the dream of everyone going into the NFL to be drafted. But, in the back of your mind, you want to go to a certain team."

Ekeler will head to the west coast May 11, when he will take part in a rookie mini-camp.

If he makes the Chargers' roster, he'll be one of two Eaton High School products on an NFL roster, joining veteran defensive end Mitch Unrein, now with the Chicago Bears.

Los Angeles plays in the AFC West, opening the door for Ekeler to come back to Colorado to play the Denver Broncos at least once per season, if Ekeler does in fact make the team's active roster.

Ekeler is the only running back the Chargers added during the draft/undrafted free agent process. Los Angeles didn't draft a running back with any of its picks in each of the draft's seven rounds.

The Chargers have lacked production at running back in recent years, finishing 26th among 32 teams in rushing offense this past season; 31st and 30th the two previous seasons, respectively.

Their depth chart at running back consists of incumbent starter Melvin Gordon, followed by backups Branden Oliver, Kenneth Farrow, free agent signee Kenjon Barner (with Philadelphia last year) and Andre Williams.

In his second year this past season, Gordon, 6-foot-1, 215 pounds, carried the ball 254 times for 997 and 10 touchdowns, managing 3.9 yards per carry.

Gordon's backup, Danny Woodhead, departed for Baltimore in March after missing most of last season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee.

Ekeler has drawn ample comparisons to the reliable Woodhead; for his modest height yet solid build, his hard running, versatile pass-catching and small-school background.

Like Ekeler, Woodhead was lightly recruited out of high school, playing college in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference, for Chadron State.

While Woodhead was, at the time, the NCAA all-divisions career rushing record-holder, racking up 7,962 yards in four years, Ekeler had jaw-dropping numbers of his own at Western State.

He broke nearly every Mountaineer career rushing record, carrying the ball 932 times for 5,857 yards and 55 touchdowns.

As Chadron's secondary coach and special teams coordinator for five years, Western State head coach Jas Bains spent time with Woodhead before coaching Ekeler in Gunnison.

In an interview with The Tribune in December, Bains compared Ekeler to Woodhead.

"You get one-on-one out in space, and good luck to the defender," Bains said of Ekeler's Woodhead-like ability to evade tackles and head downhill. "He's been the face of our program since he arrived. He's probably one of the best players to come out of Western in a long time and, just looking at the numbers, probably the best tailback ever to play at Western."

And, now, just as Woodhead departs the Golden State, Ekeler hopes to slide right into the Chargers' West Coast offense and make a similar impact, while writing a similar success story.

"When I was talking to the (Chargers') scout, when they first came up, he was saying I kind of reminded him of Danny; they told me the same thing (Saturday)," Ekeler said. "That's my goal, is to replace (Woodhead) and what he was doing there, because he was doing a good job."