In the midst of a massive breakthrough rookie season for Justin Herbert, the Chargers also saw excellent play from running back Austin Ekeler in the 10 games he was on the field. Ekeler is one of the best pass-catching running backs in the NFL, and the Chargers will be hoping he can contribute more on the ground especially after Los Angeles massively improved their offensive line over the offseason. We’re only two seasons removed from Ekeler finishing as the RB6 in half-PPR scoring in 2019, and this offense is significantly improved from that team.
Austin Ekeler with Justin Herbert under center is going to be borderline eroticpic.twitter.com/hvsSeMei9j
— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) November 24, 2020
There may have been some concerns as Ekeler, a phenomenal pass-catcher, transitioned from Philip Rivers to Justin Herbert under center. Herbert is much more explosive as a passer, but Rivers has a history of heavily targeting the running back position. However, Ekeler still saw a 16-game pace of 104 targets, just four fewer than he saw in 2019. Ekeler ran for 4.6 YPC, a very impressive mark considering the poor offensive line play in front of him. He only had 3 combined touchdowns in 10 games, but there’s considerable reason for optimism that can improve this season.
The Chargers project as one of the best offenses in the NFL, and they are loaded with talent, especially with their remade offensive line. Ekeler has never seen more than 250 touches, but I believe this is the season that changes. Ekeler’s efficiency should improve considerably this season, and that improved efficiency combined with a ton of touches could lead to a career year for the Chargers’ back. There is a clear path to top-five fantasy upside at the running back position for Ekeler this season in new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi’s system.
Running backs with the most fantasy points per rushing attempt (Min. 100 attempts):
— FantasyData (@FantasyDataNFL) June 11, 2021
ADP & Auction Value
ADP: 13, Round 2, RB10
Auction Value: $36
Both Austin Ekeler’s ADP and auction value have him priced outside of the top ten at the running back position, which is crazy to me. Last year was a bit of a down year for him as he adjusted to life with a new quarterback and dealt with some nagging injuries, but Ekeler finished as the RB6 in half-PPR scoring in 2019. With the improvements of this offense and the introduction of an offensive coordinator who should work wonders for Ekeler’s fantasy upside, he’s a clear value at his current draft price.
Austin Ekeler finished as the RB14 in fantasy points per game in half-PPR scoring with 13.8 points per game. However, that’s with just 3 touchdowns in 10 games, a clear low output for him – he scored 11 touchdowns from scrimmage in 16 games in 2019. Ekeler’s 17-game pace last year was 198 carries and 92 catches. That type of usage is hard to find in fantasy football, and regardless of where his efficiency lands, that sheer number of touches makes him a top-15 back at worst in my evaluation. Ekeler was very consistent last season as he scored 9+ half-PPR points in all but one of his appearances. If the efficiency bump and touchdown increase don’t come as I expect, Ekeler will still be a very reliable RB2 in fantasy football leagues.
I have high hopes for Austin Ekeler this season. Ekeler has run for 4.9 YPC in his career despite playing behind one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL, and the Chargers did a lot to improve that unit this offseason (more on that in a minute). There are very few running backs that have legitimate 100+ catch upside this season, and Ekeler is one of those guys. I have Ekeler down for 186 carries, a bit lower than his 17-game pace from last season, as I still have Justin Jackson and Joshua Kelley having a significant involvement in the offense. However, Ekeler could easily see 200+ rushes this season and could easily run for over 5 yards per carry. I have Ekeler as the RB9 in my half-PPR projections at the moment, but there are a number of easy paths for even greater output. New offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi comes from a Saints’ offense that helped Alvin Kamara excelled in fantasy as a lower-carry back by splitting him out wide and creatively manufacturing touches for him – this bodes very well for Ekeler. If Ekeler sees 300+ touches, which isn’t outside the realm of possibilities, he has a clear top-five RB upside.
The future for Ekeler behind this improved Chargers oline is as shiny as his beautiful bald head.
Averaged 4.6 YPC behind the worst line in football and now will be running behind one the best. Efficiency will be off the charts.
Plus, he’s a clear candidate for 100 targets.
— Matthew Amato (@MattAmatoSF) June 10, 2021
Los Angeles Chargers Offense
Last season was a notable one for the Chargers as first-round rookie quarterback Justin Herbert broke every rookie passing record imaginable – he finished with 4,336 passing yards, 31 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions through the air as well as 234 yards and 5 touchdowns on the ground. He showed no signs of any kind of a rookie wall and was clearly ready for the transition to the NFL. Herbert’s great season was awesome for Keenan Allen who caught 100 balls for 992 yards and 8 touchdowns in just 14 games. Mike Williams was hit-or-miss, finishing with 48 catches for 756 yards and 5 touchdowns in 15 games, while Jaylen Guyton and Tyron Johnson provided some high-flying ancillary receiver play. Tight end Hunter Henry is now on the Patriots, and Jared Cook will replace him – this could lead to more short-area targets for Austin Ekeler.
The most notable piece of this Chargers offense is an offensive line that has undergone a massive transformation over the past two years. After former Packers’ tackle Bryan Bulaga was brought in as a significant upgrade on the right side, Los Angeles dipped back into the Green Bay well by signing First-Team All-Pro center Corey Linsley. Former Steelers’ guard Matt Feiler represents a solid upgrade, as well. Los Angeles then spent their first-round pick on Rashawn Slater who has the ability to fill in at either tackle or guard. With the Chargers now having one of the best O-lines in the NFL, Ekeler’s efficiency should improve considerably. The Chargers hired Brandon Staley, the former Rams’ defensive coordinator, as their new head coach. He brings Joe Lombardi with him as the new offensive coordinator. Lombardi was the Saints’ quarterbacks coach from 2016-2020 and helped oversee an offense that saw Alvin Kamara produce some of the best numbers at running back in the NFL.
Strength of Schedule
Ekeler’s Chargers play in the AFC West, a division that is home to some beatable defenses in the Raiders (25th), Broncos (21st), and Chiefs (15th) who ranked middle-of-the-pack in terms of fantasy points allowed to the running back position last season. In the inter-conference play, the Chargers face the NFC East, a division with a mixed bag of defenses. Washington (3rd) and New York (12th) were two of the better defenses against RBs in fantasy, while Dallas (24th) and Philadelphia (22nd) were much more generous to running backs. The Chargers do face the Steelers (2nd) and Ravens (4th), two of the better defenses against RBs, but the Browns (19th) and Bengals (20th) are much more beatable in the AFC North. Finally, Los Angeles plays the Patriots (8th), one of the better defenses in football, as well as the Vikings (26th) and Texans (31st), two defenses that really struggled in terms of fantasy points allowed to the running back position last year. All in all, the Chargers’ schedule ranks as the 8th-easiest for running backs for fantasy football per FantasyPros.
Austin Ekeler has played 16 games without Melvin Gordon since 2018:
7 games as a fantasy football RB1
13 games as a fantasy football RB2
Absolute worst performance: RB31
With Herbert: RB14, RB3, RB8, RB21, RB8, RB26, RB16, RB15
Full point-per-reception scoring is a helluva drug
— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) June 11, 2021
Austin Ekeler may be one of the best early-round values at the running back position. At his current ADP as the 11th running back off the board, you’re drafting him much closer to his baseline than his clear top-five upside. Ekeler should benefit greatly from new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi’s scheme and a massively upgraded offensive line, and I have high hopes for a fully healthy season following a series of minor injuries last year. If you can land Ekeler in the late second or even early third round, I’d recommend taking him and running away laughing – he’s a potential league-winning type of player this season.
— NFL Update (@MySportsUpdate) December 8, 2019
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