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NFL Player Profile

Can Austin Ekeler build on his amazing 2019?

by Ian Hartitz
Updated On: May 7, 2020, 1:45 am ET

We’re in the thick of the NFL offseason and it’s officially time to start fantasy football prep. I’ll be answering the biggest questions heading into the 2020 season; Click here to read the series of questions answered so far.

The idea of a theoretical three-down back is a player that possesses the ability to run, catch and block efficiently. Thus, there should be no reason to ever pull them off the field if their coach desires.

The 2019 season saw Chargers RB Austin Ekeler go from a theoretical three-down RB ... to a real-life workhorse RB after Melvin Gordon held out for a new contract during the first four weeks. All Ekeler did with the opportunity was work as fantasy's overall PPR RB2 while functioning as the backfield's clear-cut lead RB over backup Justin Jackson:

  • Week 1: Ekeler (12-58-1 rushing, 9-96-2 receiving, 75% snaps); Jackson (6-57-0, 1-4-0, 25%)
  • Week 2: Ekeler (17-66-1, 6-67-0, 74%); Jackson (7-59-0, 1-5-0, 26%)
  • Week 3: Ekeler (9-36-0, 7-45-0, 65%); Jackson (5-26-0, 4-4-0, 38%)
  • Week 4: Ekeler (18-60-1, 5-62-1, 72%); Troymaine Pope (10-20-0, 2-14-1, 42%)

MGIII took his talents to Denver, meaning this 65-75% snap role could be here to stay in 2020.

The absence of Philip Rivers makes this offense a bit more difficult to project than usual, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try. What follows is a breakdown on Ekeler's 2020 fantasy outlook.

Ekeler is truly a talented RB

We already knew Ekeler was a baller before Gordon missed action. Overall, the former undrafted free agent ranked among the league's top-three backs in yards per rush (5.3), yards per target (7.8) and yards per touch (6.8) during the first two seasons of his career. Ekeler's receiving-friendly skill-set enhances his fantasy production, but even before 2019 he proved capable of racking up yards on limited touches.

PFF's "Elusive Rating" metric measures the "success and impact of a runner with the ball independently of the blocking in front of him by looking at how hard he was to bring down."

The top-eight RBs in Elusive Rating in 2019 were as follows (minimum 100 touches):

Ekeler tied Saquon Barkley for the 13th-most yards after contact per attempt among 61 backs. Is he the world's ideal back at pounding the rock up the middle 20 times a game? No, but that strategy is pretty stupid anyway so whatever.

There's little doubt that Ekeler is an above-average rusher at a minimum.

And as a receiver? The man is a world-beater.

Ekeler's 92 receptions from 2019 have only been topped by Christian McCaffrey, Matt Forte, Larry Centers and LaDainian Tomlinson among all RBs in NFL history.

The only problem with confidently projecting another dominant 2020 campaign is the absence of Rivers under center.

Tyrod Taylor isn't great for the Ekeler business

The artist formerly known as TyGod started 43 games for the Bills from 2015-2017. There were a number of key takeaways from the experience:

  • The Bills were a bottom-two offense in pass attempts during all three seasons that TyGod was their starter.
  • This didn't prevent them from functioning as an efficient unit for extended stretches, as they ranked No. 9, No. 14 and No. 27 in yards per play during the 2015-2017 seasons, respectively.
  • Life was particularly fruitful for the Bills' bell-cow RB LeSean McCoy. Overall, Shady ranked as the PPR RB19 (2015, 12 games), RB4 (2016, 15 games) and RB7 (2017, 16 games) with Taylor under center.
  • McCoy didn't see quite the same target volume as he did during his time with Andy Reid and the Eagles, although he averaged the same number of yards per target.
  • Shady's target share also wasn't particularly bad; it just wasn't elite. His average of 4.3 targets per game with the Bills from 2015-2017 would've ranked 16th among all RBs in 2019.
  • Taylor's dual-threat ability proved to be good for McCoy's rushing efficiency. Overall, McCoy averaged as many yards with Taylor under center (4.6) as he did with the Eagles and Chiefs alike.

It seems more likely than not that the 2020 Chargers resemble the 2019 Chargers more so than the 2015-2017 Bills. Either way, we saw enough from McCoy with Taylor to feel plenty confident about the veteran QB's ability to enable a high-end fantasy back.

Of course, it remains to be seen just how long of a leash Taylor will have. Coach Anthony Lynn stressed throughout the offseason that TyGod is more than a bridge QB ... but then the organization felt the need to draft Justin Herbert with the No. 6 overall pick. Teams don't draft top-10 QBs to sit on the bench; 17-of-21 (81%) of first-round QBs selected since 2010 started at least 10 games as a rookie.

Regardless of who winds up starting the majority of games at QB ... 

Ekeler is going under-drafted ahead of the 2020 season

Fourth-round RB Joshua Kelley figures to compete with Justin Jackson for snaps as opposed to Ekeler. This is because RBs drafted outside of the top-three rounds almost never post top-tier fantasy production as a rookie. The Chargers' decision to hand Ekeler a four-year, $24.5 million contract reinforces the reality that this is his backfield.

And yet, we're still not seeing the public treat Ekeler as a true fantasy RB1. I'm not saying we should chase his production from Weeks 1-4 last season, but an average draft position as the PPR RB19 in season-long leagues is absolutely ridiculous.

There's an argument of ranking Ekeler as high as the PPR RB8 ahead of 2020. Personally I think he's closer to the RB1 borderline.

Either way: Ekeler is shaping up as a value (again). We have a proven great player in terms of efficiency as both a passer and a runner in an offense that returns the same coaching staff. The change in QB is the driving force behind Ekeler's reduced price tag, but further investigation of Shady McCoy's fantasy excellence with TyGod, combined with the potential for Herbert to start sooner rather than later, makes the absence of Rivers less of an issue than most think.

It's not smart to chase players at an ADP equivalent to their very-best stretch of football. Still, Ekeler functioned as the PPR RB5 in Weeks 5-17 with Gordon back in action. Fantasy leagues that don't reward a full point-per-reception don't offer as much appeal for the Chargers' No. 1 RB, but it's tough to call him anything other than a preseason fantasy RB1 otherwise.

Ian Hartitz

All things NFL. Great day to be great. You can follow Ian on Twitter @Ihartitz.