Week 1 NFL Notebook: Austin Ekeler Questionable; TJ Watt Returns

Kyle Garlett

Most of the focus for the Chargers Week 1 matchup against Washington has involved quarterback Justin Herbert against that great defense. But don’t underestimate the importance of the L.A. running game, or the impact it would have if Austin Ekeler is ruled out for Sunday.

Ekeler missed practice on Wednesday with a bad hamstring, and his availability for the season opener is now up in the air. He’s been down this road before, missing six games last season with a series of injuries, including a hamstring strain. And even with the missed time, Ekeler still had more than 900 yards of total offense.

Without a proven tight end, look for Herbert to rely on his pass-catching running backs. Ekeler caught 54 passes in 10 games, with Joshua Kelley catching 23 and Justin Jackson catching 19. It is a massive part of the Charger offense, and when going against WFT, the second-ranked team in Total Team Yards Allowed in 2020, losing someone like Ekeler will hurt.

When it comes to defending Herbert, Washington finished 3rd in the NFL in Defensive Real Quarterback Rating.

Cam Newton Looking for New Team

He has an MVP award and a Super Bowl appearance, but 32-year-old Cam Newton wants everyone to know that he still has plenty he’d like to accomplish on a football field. Retirement is the furthest thing from his mind, according to Cam, he has “a lot of football still in me.

At the moment, there hasn’t been much interest in Newton on the open market. But as the games begin this weekend, so will the injuries. And even though Newton did not look good last season, he is a former MVP who age-wise still has good football years left.

His passing numbers were terrible in 2020, with eight touchdowns to 10 interceptions. In Offensive Passer Rating, New England ranked 27th. But Newton was good running the ball, picking up 592 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground. Newton’s most likely landing spot will come with a team that is ready to scheme plays specifically for him.

T.J. Watt Back at Steelers Practice

Since holdouts are subject to fines, T.J. Watt hasn’t missed any of Pittsburgh’s practices this summer. But he hasn’t been practicing either. The new hold-in that has become popular around the league is akin to members of Congress voting present.

On Wednesday, however, Watt went from present to a participant, actually practicing with the team, and easing the fears of those who were afraid Watt was going to sit out games until his new contract demands were met. Head coach Mike Tomlin also added his reassurances by saying that he expects his All-Pro pass rusher to play at Buffalo on Sunday.

As for the conflict that put his status in doubt, like everything in the NFL, it comes down to money. Watt is playing out his fifth-year option, which pays him $10 million this season. He just finished a season in which he was the second-leading vote-getter for Defensive Player of the Year. He’s underpaid, and he knows it. And so does Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

“One of the reasons I took less money was for guys like him to get paid, and he needs to get paid. He deserves every penny that he wants and asks for.” - Ben Roethlisberger

Jimmy G Officially Starting According to Jimmy G

Head coach Kyle Shanahan won’t say who his starting quarterback will be on Sunday. Now he doesn’t have to, since Jimmy Garoppolo has confirmed that it’s him.

“[I’ve known] for a while. I told you guys a long time ago; I had a pretty good feeling about it. Kind of joked about it, but yeah, I always kind of knew where I stood and everything. And yeah, now it’s official.” - Jimmy G

Garoppolo is just two seasons removed from taking the 49ers to the Super Bowl. But injuries cost him 13 games in 2018 and another ten games in 2020. And when he is in the game, the 49ers’ offense is decidedly more conservative. Before Garopollo going on IR in Week 9, the 49ers ranked 16th in Real Passing Yds/Attempt.

Trey Lance is sure to play this year, and maybe even this week. But as the Niners open the season at Detroit, Jimmy G is QB1.