Austin Ekeler is a very interesting player to value in dynasty entering the 2022 season. He’s coming off not only the best season of his career but also the healthiest. The Chargers are an ascending offense with an offensive line that keeps getting better. How should dynasty fantasy football managers value Ekeler going forward?
Austin Ekeler’s dynasty profile for 2022
After Melvin Gordon left before the 2020 season, fantasy managers were excited about the prospect of the Chargers handing the keys to their backfield over to Ekeler. They did just that.
Ekeler averaged 17 touches per game in 2020, but a torn hamstring cost him six games. He was an RB1 during those 10 games, though, averaging 16.5 PPR fantasy points per contest.
Ahead of the 2021 season, Ekeler’s value was at an all-time high. Justin Herbert’s incredible rookie season turned the Chargers’ offense into one of the best in football. A rising tide lifts all boats, and Ekeler was one of the boats. The only reason Ekeler wasn’t a first-round redraft pick was because of the injury concern. Here’s the thing about Ekeler’s health concerns, though — they’re kind of overblown.
Running backs get hurt often. It’s just the nature of the position. Ekeler has missed just nine games in his five NFL seasons. In 2021, he put together a mostly healthy season (he was on the injury report a lot but always played). He proved all the believers correct, finishing as the overall RB3 with 21.6 ppg. What does this mean going forward, and how should dynasty managers value Ekeler ahead of the 2022 season?
Fantasy projection for Ekeler
I fully expect Ekeler to be a top-five pick in 2022 redraft leagues. He’s tethered to an elite young quarterback on an explosive offense that features Keenan Allen and Mike Williams.
What makes Ekeler so valuable is his usage in the passing game. Ekeler proved his 2020 performance was legitimate and that he could be a three-down back. He averaged 17.25 touches per game in 2021. The primary difference was touchdowns. Ekeler scored just three in his 10 games in 2020. Last year, Ekeler found the end zone 20 times.
Ekeler had the sixth-most red-zone rushing attempts with 42 and the third-most red-zone targets amongst running backs with 17. The Chargers put Ekeler in positions where he could thrive without overworking him. Although his 67% snap share was a career-high, it’s not like he was playing over 75% of the snaps.
Entering 2022, the Chargers’ offensive line is even better. Herbert is another year more experienced, and this offense is poised to score even more than it did last season. Ekeler is on the shortlist of running backs with overall RB1 upside.
What is Ekeler’s future beyond 2022?
One of the main reasons many fantasy managers had confidence in Ekeler after Gordon left was his contract. The Chargers gave Ekeler a four-year deal worth $24.5 million. That sends a clear message that they believed in him as their feature back.
Ekeler is signed through 2023. Although he is already 27 years old, dynasty managers should be confident Ekeler can remain an RB1 for at least the remainder of his current contract. I wouldn’t be surprised if he had 3-4 years of high-level production left.
Part of the reason Ekeler may be able to produce into his late 20s is that pass-catching backs age better than between-the-tackles grinders. Additionally, Ekeler hasn’t taken much punishment. He certainly hasn’t taken as many hits as your typical 27-year-old running back.
Ekeler entered the NFL in 2017 at age 22. He has 889 career touches. For comparison purposes, Leonard Fournette, drafted in 2017, has 1,182 career touches. Ezekiel Elliott was drafted just one year before Ekeler and Fournette, but he’s amassed 1,938 career touches. Zeke looks like a player on the decline. Ekeler and Fournette do not.
Age matters in dynasty, especially at running back, but mostly because it correlates with expected touch totals. Ekeler playing second fiddle to Gordon for three years may have been frustrating for his fantasy managers, but it will likely prolong his career.
What can fantasy managers expect from Ekeler?
It’s far too soon for me to commit to any redraft rankings, but I will likely have Ekeler as a top-five running back. I don’t think his injury concerns are any better or worse than any other running back. He plays on a high-scoring offense with an elite young quarterback. What we saw in 2021 is exactly what I expect from Ekeler in 2022.
This is a player very much capable of averaging 20 ppg once again. His floor is incredibly high due to what should be another 15% target share. Ekeler is third on the target totem pole behind Allen and Williams, which is great for a running back. At worst, fantasy managers should have a mid RB1.
There is also a scenario where things break very right for Ekeler. If his catch rate rebounds from 74% last year to the 84% level from the previous two years, he could catch 90 passes as he did in 2019. While a 20-touchdown campaign doesn’t feel super repeatable, if the offense as a whole takes another step forward, it’s certainly possible.
There’s a world where Ekeler has 1,800 yards from scrimmage, 90 receptions, and 20 touchdowns. That would put him around 23 ppg, in contention for the overall RB1 spot, and in line to be a surefire top-three fantasy back once again.
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