Austin Ekeler was the NFL’s most surprising running back last season after he shattered every analyst’s fantasy expectations. According to Yahoo Sports, Austin Ekeler was the 34th ranked running back in fantasy football before the season began. Most of the hesitation to value Ekeler was due to his status as Melvin Gordon’s backup.
However, Ekeler exploded onto the scene with a breakout campaign in 2019. After Gordon decided to hold out during the early part of the season, Austin received a bulk of touches, and boy did he maximize them. The former Western Colorado product finished the year with 557 rushing yards, three rushing TDs, 92 catches, 993 receiving yards, and eight receiving TDs. As a result, he was the fourth-most productive back in fantasy football.
|Name||Rush Yards||Rush TDs||Receptions||Receiving Yards||Receiving TDs||Fantasy Points||Fantasy Points/Game|
|Austin Ekeler 2019 Stats||557||3||92||993||8||309||19.3|
|Austin Ekeler 2020 Projections||501.3||2.25||79.12||844.1||5.4||259.6||16.2|
The biggest news coming out of the Los Angeles Chargers‘ off-season was their decision to cut ties with the future hall-of-fame quarterback, Phillip Rivers. After 16 seasons with Rivers, Tyrod Taylor is next in line to be the Chargers’ signal-caller for 2020. This makes sense given that Taylor and Chargers’ head coach, Anthony Lynn, worked together when Lynn was the Buffalo Bills’ offensive coordinator. Even though that offense was devoid of talent, Taylor and Lynn maximized it’s rushing efficiency and led the Bills to the playoffs.
As expected, the Chargers front office also decided to let Melvin Gordon leave in free agency. Instead, they opted to sign Ekeler to a 4-year contract worth $24.5 million. This move will do wonders for Austin Ekeler’s fantasy ceiling because he is now the undisputed lead back in the Chargers offense. As a result, he is projected to receive the overwhelming share of touches and touchdowns amongst all Chargers RBs.
As of right now, it is currently difficult to predict how the Chargers scheme will look next season. Anthony Lynn has made confusing and sometimes contradicting statements relating to how his offense will adapt next season. Although one aspect that Lynn has emphasized has been a desire to integrate a mobile QB into his system. This emphasis on rushing the football signals that the Chargers might increase their carries next season, bolstering Ekeler’s ceiling in standard fantasy leagues.
During a press conference late February, Lynn noted that the QB position is transitioning towards a guy who can win within the pocket, but also extend plays with his legs. This comment perfectly describes Tyrod Taylor’s upside as a passer because he refrains from putting the ball harm’s way when he’s in the pocket. Plus, he excels as a dual-threat QB who can pick up yardage on the ground or throw accurately on the run.
During his time with the Bills and Chargers, Tyrod Taylor has mostly been featured in pistol formations. This offense propelled the San Francisco 49ers’ offense with Colin Kaepernick and led Ravens QB, Lamar Jackson, to his sensational MVP season. Moreover, Greg Roman and Anthony Lynn utilized the pistol system in Buffalo to open up all facets of the run game; inside zone, outside zone, power running, etc.
If Lynn and the Chargers coaching staff decide to employ the pistol offense, this will maximize Ekeler’s rushing capabilities compared to last season. In 2019, Ekeler wasn’t much of a rushing threat, and his measly 557 rush yards speak for themselves. However, part of Ekeler’s rushing ability was stymied due to the presence of Melvin Gordon. With Gordon now in Denver, Ekeler looks to see a suitable number of carries within a versatile rushing scheme. For example, his elusiveness can be utilized in inside-zone & outside-zone styles, and on RPO or read-option plays.
As a result, Ekeler will likely witness an uptick in his rushing yardage. However, this increase could be mitigated if the Chargers decide to integrate Justin Jackson into the offense more. Over the past two seasons, Jackson has made some flashes in the running game. Yet, he has never been able to successfully maintain a lasting contribution in the Chargers offense. Therefore, he is only a minor issue in terms of Ekeler’s fantasy success. Nevertheless, fantasy owners should pay attention to whether Jackson receives a significant share of carries, and monitor if the Chargers draft a running back this April.
If it wasn’t for Christian McCaffery, Austin Ekeler would have been the NFL’s most productive receiving back in fantasy football. Last season, Ekeler was very active in the receiving game, hauling in 92 catches, 993 receiving yards, and eight receiving TDs. Even though it’s rare for a running back to eclipse the 1,000 receiving yardage mark, Ekeler has an excellent opportunity to do so in 2020.
For starters, Tyrod Taylor’s nature as a conservative QB, who likes to check the ball to RBs, will bolster Ekeler’s fantasy value next season. According to PFF analyst, Steve Palazzolo, Taylor had the eighth-highest percentage of check-downs over the past two seasons. This indicates that Ekeler will likely receive a significant amount of dump-offs next season. If Tyrod can move the chains as he did with Buffalo, then Ekeler will have more upside and consistently have opportunities to gain yardage after the catch.
In 2019, Ekeler was only seven yards away from reaching the 1,000-yard receiving milestone, despite only recording a 45.8% opportunity share, according to playerprofiler.com. With Melvin Gordon now on the Broncos, no Charger running back will siphon targets away from Austin. Therefore, Ekeler’s opportunity share should skyrocket to at least 70 percent. Resultantly, Ekeler’s is primed to shatter his 2019 receiving numbers and haul in at least 120 receptions and 1,200 receiving yards. These statistics, coupled with modest rushing success, would make him a reliable fantasy option, especially in PPR leagues.
Heading into next season, Austin Ekeler is in a better fantasy situation than he was last season. He won’t have to split as many touches and he’ll be a focal point of the Chargers’ new offensive system. While some fantasy managers might be wary of drafting a one-year-wonder, Ekeler’s fantasy outlook might be brighter than some fan favorites. For instance, CBS reporter Heath Cummings noted that Ekeler has been 10% better than Saints RB, Alvin Kamara, in terms of efficiency per touch. Therefore, Ekeler could become an RB1 option with elite upside if the Chargers offense can move the chains.
A big part of Austin Ekeler’s fantasy production will be dependent on Tyrod Taylor’s production as a passer. If Tyrod Taylor is unable to move the chains next season, that will disrupt Austin Ekeler’s fantasy success. Despite his conservative playing style and previous success with Anthony Lynn, Taylor has often struggled to find open receivers when he goes through his progressions. This issue was extremely apparent when Taylor was in Cleveland, and it had a detrimental impact on the Browns’ running back output in fantasy football. Therefore, Austin’s floor is slated to be in the RB2/3 range if the Chargers offense is stale.
Austin Ekeler’s fantasy value is abundantly higher in PPR leagues than standard leagues. If you are a fantasy owner drafting in a PPR league, he would be worth a second-round pick. However, in standard leagues, it might be wiser to choose another running back early and target Ekeler in the third-round. He is currently listed as the 6th ranked running back overall, and 26th-best player to draft in fantasy football. His short history of fantasy success will likely discourage some fantasy owners from taking a chance on him. Nevertheless, he could be a fantastic draft steal if given the opportunity.
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