Limited 2020 Season and Previous Fantasy Production
Austin Ekeler had an up-and-down 2020 season which was interrupted by a six-week Injury that ultimately held him back from producing at 100% for fantasy owners. In ten games, Ekeler had 116 carries for 530 yards and 1 rushing touchdown. Through the air, he totaled 54 receptions for 403 yards and 2 receiving touchdowns. In half-PPR leagues, Ekeler finished the season as the RB29, which isn’t terrible considering he didn’t play in 6 games, but obviously not the finish you expected after drafting him in the 2nd round in your fantasy league.
While fantasy managers may be shy to draft him again this upcoming season, let’s take a look at his stats just two seasons ago to look at what he can do with a full season under his belt. In 2019 Ekeler was electric - he rushed for 557 yards on 132 carries, scoring three 3 touchdowns on the ground, and was even better in the receiving game. He tallied 92 receptions for 993 yards and 8 touchdowns, en route to finishing as the RB6 in half-PPR leagues. While this was playing with “check-down king” Philip Rivers, second-year quarterback Justin Herbert has shown that he is able and willing to give Ekeler a handful of targets per game.
If we extrapolate Ekeler’s 2020 pass-catching numbers into a full season and his catch rate remained the same, he would have finished with around 86 catches on 104 targets. Through the 10 games he did play, he finished as the third-most targeted running back with 6.5 targets per game (for reference, Kamara finished 1st, J.D. McKissic 2nd).
Off-season additions for the Chargers
One of the biggest acquisitions from this past offseason has to be the hiring of offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi who was previously the quarterback coach of the New Orleans Saints for the past five seasons. He’s coming from seeing just how dominant Alvin Kamara has been and he is going to install a game plan which will get him involved early and often. Herbert may not be as likely to dump the ball off to Ekeler on a broken-down play, but if the offensive gameplay is to get Ekeler 10-15 targets a game, lookout.
While we love to look at the upside, there is potential for the offense to take a step back this year given that it is Lombardi’s first year with the Chargers and his last job as a coordinator wasn’t great. Back in 2014, he was the OC with the Lions. He did not fare well and the offense was stagnant, and this was an offense that included quarterback Matthew Stafford and Hall of Fame wide receiver Calvin Johnson.
He arguably has a better offense this year with the likes of Herbert, Ekeler, Allen, and Williams, but he will need to prove himself and has hopefully learned a lot from being under the wing of Sean Payton for the last handful of years. He’s seen what happens when you give your player the ball in space out of the backfield and if he can get Ekeler involved similar to his 2019 campaign, the sky's the limit in this offense for him.
During the NFL Draft in April, the only meaningful addition the Chargers made was drafting running back Larry Rountree in the 6th round. While it is a 6th-round addition, it is another running back in the mix, with a depth chart that also includes Justin Jackson and Joshua Kelley. While it’s unlikely Ekeler will run in many touchdowns this year, given the new offensive scheme, it’s more likely than not that he will be in running routes when the Chargers are near the red zone to create mismatches, like the aforementioned Alvin Kamara does with the Saints, or like Christian McCaffrey does for the Panthers.
2021 Outlook - How High Can Ekeler Finish?
Austin Ekeler is being drafted this season at the end of the first round/beginning of the second round as the RB10 off the board, and currently has an average draft position (ADP) of 1.11 - 2.02. Quarterback Justin Herbert is entering his second year and will look to improve on an impressive rookie performance and Ekeler should be his best friend in this new offensive scheme. If Ekeler can match or exceed 2019’s fantasy production, managers will be very happy and he can be a solid cog in your squad this year.
Kamara-like numbers are not out of the realm of possibilities this season and if you are in any sort of PPR league this year, I’d be comfortable taking him with the 6th pick or later. In fantasy leagues, you need a solid, every-week producer who is game-script independent and can see 20 touches or more a game. Ekeler checks all of these boxes and is a serious contender to finish as a top-5 to 7 RB this year if he can stay healthy and the new OC incorporates him into the offense like we expect him to.
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