With 259 prospects set to find new homes in the 2021 NFL Draft, an undrafted free agent-turned-starter knows what it is like to climb from the bottom of the mountain.
Chargers running back Austin Ekeler, who signed a four-year deal worth $24.5 million ahead of the 2020 season, went undrafted in 2017 after coming out of Western Colorado but signed with the Los Angeles franchise immediately and has established himself as a key cog in their offence.
“When I was undrafted, I had everything to prove,” Ekeler said. “I was wearing no.3 at the time, and a running back couldn’t wear no.3 until this year in the NFL, so I was basically a ‘camp body’ – someone that’s there to fill the space.
“I was sixth-string and there are not many sixth-stringers that make the team, so I had to show that I’m actually more valuable than that. I made the team through special teams, not even on offence. It was a special feeling.”
With the global pandemic affecting the college football season as well as draft preparation, it will be harder than ever for undrafted prospects to leave a lasting impression on coaches.
While Ekeler agreed that it is more difficult in some ways, there are also silver linings that could work to the 2021 class’ benefit.
He said: “It’s difficult in a different way than it was for me, obviously. They don’t have the running of OTAs that I had, so they’re not going to get the reps you need.
“They helped my mentality so [prospects] have to find a different way to get the mental work in. You’re going to have to do all this stuff on your own and it’s going to make you become a professional even sooner.
“There are pre-season games this year, so it is better than last year where there was no opportunity besides training camp to make the team. It’s not the best time to try to make teams when undrafted!”
Ekeler has established himself on the LA roster, and he is not the only Charger to have impressed recently after the franchise drafted Justin Herbert in the first round last year.
Herbert went on to win Rookie of the Year as he set a new rookie passing touchdown record with 31, and Ekeler spoke of the impact on the franchise of finding a star quarterback.
“It gives you a boost of confidence throughout the organisation, even in the community, because in this league you have to have a good quarterback. If your quarterback is average, you’re not going to make playoffs because there’s too many elite quarterbacks.
“I love Justin Herbert because he’s level-headed, he wants to hang out with the guys and get better at football. He’s a team guy which I love because it means we can mesh on a deeper level.
“I think by the second or third game, we thought like not only can this guy play, but he can be successful. He was better than good, especially as a rookie.”
Herbert was drafted by the Chargers a year ago, and the team are gearing up for the quarterback’s sophomore season with a new head coach.
Brandon Staley, who masterminded the dominant Los Angeles Rams defence in 2020, has arrived at the franchise and Ekeler is pleased with the attitude of his new boss.
“[Staley] wants us to get to know each other and he wants to get to know us so that we can work together better as a team when it comes to the season, and I really appreciate that because we’re still people – not just football players.
“We still like that social connection and it helps us care more about each other. I really agree with what he’s trying to do and the culture that he is trying to establish.”
Watch the NFL Draft live on Sky Sports NFL and NFL Game Pass on Thursday, April 29, with live coverage starting from 8pm.
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