Not many players are dividing opinion in the 2020 fantasy preseason like the discussion around Austin Ekeler’s dynasty value. Ekeler’s electric play style went to new heights in 2019 as he finished the season as a top-10 running back and top-15 overall option.
However, Ekeler’s season was not your traditional running back fantasy season. He had just 132 carries, despite playing 16 games, and instead relied on his work in the receiving game to fuel his fantasy value.
The departure of Melvin Gordon has left Ekeler as the senior option in the Los Angeles Chargers backfield. However, Ekeler would not be the first part-time back to struggle to step-up to the next level when an opportunity arose. Let’s take a look at how Ekeler may adjust to his role as the senior option and what that means for his dynasty value entering the 2020 season.
Austin Ekeler’s dynasty value heading into 2020
Ekeler’s fantasy performances to date
Ekeler’s fantasy point returns have grown every year in his three seasons in the league. In his first year, he scored 106 points in PPR, 168 in 2018, and 309 in 2019. While it is highly unlikely that growth continues into 2020, the debate is around whether he can sustain that impressive 2019 return, or will we see a regression to his 2018 numbers?
Throughout his three-year career, Ekeler has outscored his Expected Fantasy Points by a significant amount. In his rookie year, his Fantasy Point Differential (FPD) was 46%, before dropping to a more than respectable 25% in 2018. Given that his touches nearly doubled from 74 to 145, it is reasonable to expect that his efficiency on a per touch basis would reduce. The positive is that despite his touches jumping by a further 79 in 2019, his FPD remained above 20% at 23%.
If we go one step further and break down his performance into carries and receptions, we can get a feel for how consistent he is in the two elements. Focusing on carries first, and the story is not a pretty one. Ekeler’s fantasy points per carry have dropped each year from 0.81 to 0.69 and then to 0.56 this past season.
In contrast, his fantasy points per reception have remained reasonably consistent over his three seasons. In his rookie year, he averaged 2.70 fantasy points per reception. That dipped to 2.50 in 2018 before bouncing back to 2.60 last season.
Ekeler’s week-to-week basis was extremely good in 2019. He ranked fourth at the position with a consistency score of 6.91, while finishing as a top-24 back 67% of the time. However, while he struggled in a third of his games, he did manage to finish as a top-10 back on six occasions.
What do the stats tell us about Ekeler?
In terms of Ekeler’s production on the field, let’s start with his return when it comes to Pro Football Network’s Offensive Share Metric. OSM grades players based on their contribution to the team’s offense when it comes to factors that are within their control. However, it is worth bearing in mind that at the running back position, OSM only grades players based on their performance in the run game, with no consideration given to their role in the passing game.
Austin Ekeler’s OSM return in 2019 was not promising in the slightest as he ranked 47th with an OSM score of 8.22. That was a huge drop-off from his 17.33 OSM score in 2018, which placed him eighth at the position.
However, overlooking Ekeler’s performance in the receiving game would be a mistake, given how impressive he was. In total, Ekeler racked up 1550 scrimmage yards in 2019, with 993 of them coming on receptions. He averaged 10.8 yards per reception, the third straight year he has averaged over 10 yards per reception. Additionally, eight of his 11 touchdowns last season came in the receiving game.
Ekeler’s RAS Score
What is extremely impressive is that a lot of Ekeler’s production in the receiving game came after the catch. He averaged 10.2 yards after the catch per reception, which was the fourth-highest at the position among players with 20 or more targets. The numbers that really stand out are his 0.9% drop rate, one drop in 108 targets, and his league-leading 15 broken tackles.
These numbers from Ekeler are not a surprise when we look at his Relative Athletic Score coming out of college. Using the numbers from his Pro Day and projecting out his 10- and 20-yard splits, Ekeler’s RAS was calculated at 9.33 when he entered the draft in 2017. As you can see from the tweet below, Ekeler graded out with an Elite grade when it came to both his explosion and speed.
If I project splits, there's plenty. pic.twitter.com/eS7JAggMXc
— Kent Lee Platte (@MathBomb) March 27, 2020
What does the departure of Melvin Gordon mean?
The departure of Gordon has given many of Ekeler’s fantasy owners hope that it will result in more consistency for Ekeler. In 2019, Gordon missed the first four games of the season, and in that time, Ekeler registered three weeks as a top-10 running back. When Gordon was not in the game, Ekeler was a top-10 option 75% of the time, compared to just 25% of the time when Gordon was active.
Those numbers are reflected pretty clearly when we break down Ekeler’s 2019 season stats with and without Gordon. In 12 games with Gordon, Ekeler averaged 17 points in PPR, 0.42 receiving touchdowns, 6.33 rushing attempts, 28.08 rushing yards, and zero rushing touchdowns.
In the four games when Gordon was off the field, those numbers rose to an average of 27.25 points in PPR, 0.75 receiving touchdowns, 14 rushing attempts, 55 rushing yards, and 0.75 rushing touchdowns. Additionally, Ekeler saw seven of his 18 red-zone rushing attempts in those four games when Gordon was inactive.
Those differences remain reasonably consistent if we look back at the 2018 season. In 2018, Gordon missed three games and Ekeler’s numbers, while not as good, remained significantly better with Gordon off the field than on it. Those numbers give justification to the hopes that Ekeler will see a good fantasy return now that Gordon is no longer in Los Angeles.
Who is Ekeler’s competition for touches now?
With Gordon gone, the Chargers will need to utilize other backs to fill out their roster. Ekeler has never carried the ball in the NFL more than his 132 carries in 2019, and it is unlikely we suddenly see that number jump up to the 200-region. That means that he will still have competition for touches, with Justin Jackson and Joshua Kelley expected to be that competition.
Jackson, a seventh-round pick, brings a similar athletic profile to Ekeler. Jackson’s RAS coming out of college was 8.84, with elite agility, great explosion, and good speed. However, Jackson’s role since entering the league in 2018 has been minimal, with just 79 carries and 30 targets across those two seasons. He was a reasonably prolific back in college, averaging seven yards per reception on 122 catches and 4.8 yards per carry on 1142 rushing attempts.
Kelley is a rookie fourth-round pick from the 2020 NFL Draft, making him the highest selected back of these three. In his two-year college career, he totaled 454 carries at 5.1 yards per carry, and 38 receptions at 6.9 yards per reception. He scored a total of 25 touchdowns in those two seasons, 24 of which were rushing touchdowns to just one receiving touchdown.
Kelley actually fits a slightly different style of back than the other two on the depth chart. His RAS of 7.61 with good speed and agility, as well as okay explosion, is the lowest of the three and is significantly lower than the 8.75 posted by Melvin Gordon when he was drafted. This makes Kelley the anomaly of the group, but also suggests the Chargers may not rush him into action.
At this stage, the educated guess would be that Ekeler sees the majority of snaps, with Jackson mixing in to spread the carries, while Kelley serves as the short-yardage and goal-line back. With three backs, all with uncertain roles, it seems reasonable to expect we see a pretty even split in carries across the board. However, Ekeler should be the primary passing game weapon.
That role as a passing game weapon is even more important in the context of the other pieces on the Chargers roster. Outside of Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, and Hunter Henry, the Chargers are lacking recognized pass catchers. That should mean we see Ekeler utilized regularly in the passing game, potentially even seeing the second or third most targets on the team.
Ekeler’s 2020 projections
Projecting a player who has seen his workload rise consistently is tough. If we were to follow the trend, then Ekeler would be looking at over 150 carries and around 100 receptions. However, the Chargers are unlikely to want to hand the ball to their newly-paid running back on running plays ten times a game when he is so effective in space.
There is some concern about how the change in quarterback from Philip Rivers to either Tyrod Taylor or Justin Herbert may affect Ekeler. However, when you are as elusive and reliable as Ekeler is, many of those concerns can be overcome. He will have to develop trust with whoever is throwing the ball his way, but his great hands and elusive running style should lead to a development in trust.
Therefore, I have Ekeler projected for around 120 carries, returning around 550 rushing yards and three touchdowns. In terms of his role in the passing game, I see Ekeler remaining consistent with his 2019 numbers. That would mean around 105 targets, 90 receptions, 950 yards, and five or six touchdowns. Those numbers would be good enough to see Ekeler rank among the top-10 at the running back position in 2020.
You can check out his exact projections in my Scott Fish Bowl projections article.
The story with Ekeler is complicated because he is not your traditional running back. We discussed how running backs peak at around age 24 and in their fourth season when looking at Ezekiel Elliott a few weeks back. Ekeler is now entering his fourth season, having just turned 25, suggesting he is now at his peak. However, hs usage pattern has been very different from a traditional back, avoiding much of the wear and tear associated with the position.
Despite that, there is still reason for caution with Ekeler in 2020 and beyond. Right now, the Chargers have no front-line running back on the roster, but that can change quickly. Looking ahead to 2021, we should see a bumper running back free agency class. In addition, the 2021 NFL Draft class is expected to be stacked at RB as well. That could mean that at this time next year, Ekeler’s value could take a huge hit if the Chargers add a multi-dimensional back in either free agency or the draft.
Therefore, now is the decision time with Ekeler. If you are rebuilding, then selling is the right option. Someone in your league will love the upside and potential of this electric back and be willing to give you some good future assets for him. However, if you are contending, then Ekeler could be that difference-maker you need on a weekly basis in 2020.
In startup drafts, his price in the mid-second round is a little rich. His long-term future is not as secure as you would hope from a top-24 pick and it may be worth exercising caution taking him that high. While the 2020 stat line may look pretty, you could be led holding a sunk asset this time next season. That is not what you want from one of your top three picks in a dynasty startup draft.