Austin Ekeler Fantasy Outlook: Will the Greatest UDFA Running Back in History Dominate Again?

    Los Angeles Chargers RB Austin Ekeler somehow keeps getting better. But there are warning signs. What is his fantasy outlook in 2023?

    At PFN, we’ve researched more than 350 fantasy football players, trying to identify which ones are overrated, underrated, and priced right. With that in mind, here is Los Angeles Chargers RB Austin Ekeler’s fantasy outlook for 2023.

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    Austin Ekeler’s 2023 Fantasy Outlook

    Ekeler earned only 20 preseason touches in 2017. He was a little-known running back no one drafted. The Chargers gave him a shot. He proceeded to rack up 159 total yards that August on a blistering 5.8 yards per carry. Most of it came in the final preseason game: an 8-50 rushing line and a 3-58 receiving line.

    Vintage Ekeler. But back then, there was no context to call it vintage. Instead, it likely sealed his fate. Had he performed poorly, he very well could have been cut, and that could have marked the end of his all-too-brief professional career.

    Instead, he dominated. And then, as a rookie, he continued to dominate while frequently running circles (proverbially speaking) around teammate and entrenched bell cow Melvin Gordon.

    Fast-forward to the past two seasons, where Ekeler has developed into an elite RB. He has 731.5 fantasy points across his last two campaigns. No one else comes close. In fact, he’s the only RB to finish in the top 10 in fantasy scoring in each of the last two years.

    Generally, in fantasy leagues, a catch-happy running back is a manager’s best friend. Ekeler is already on pace to be one of the most productive pass-catching running backs in NFL history. And after earning career-highs in targets (127) and receptions (107) in 2022, one should be justifiably bullish about his chances to lead the league once again.

    It also helps that he plays in a terrific Chargers offense. Throw last year out the window when they averaged “only” 23.0 points per game. Too many injuries. Yes, Ekeler benefitted by becoming a greater focal point of an offense forced to lean heavily on Joshua Palmer and DeAndre Carter.

    But this team is capable of returning to 2021’s elite form and perhaps even moving beyond it. With more scoring opportunities, Ekeler should be just fine.

    Of course, we need to examine contrarian perspectives before putting a final period on this article because no player is guaranteed anything in fantasy. Even the best have yellow flags — whether faint or bright.

    Ekeler’s flags might seem faint. But I would argue that they haven’t been this bright since early in his rookie year.

    For starters, he’s now 28 years old, with all the mileage (or more) of most running backs his age. Also, he had a career-high 276 touches in 2021, which jumped to 326 (including the playoffs) in 2022. Yes, he was a fairly high-usage bell cow at Western Colorado University. Surely he can handle the workload.

    And yet, it’s a yellow flag not only because he’s approaching over-usage levels but also because he’s working more for his fantasy points.

    What does this mean? During the regular season last year, he averaged 1.20 fantasy points per touch. That’s outstanding, obviously. But the year before, he netted 1.25 fantasy points per touch. Two years before that, he averaged 1.38.

    Moreover, touchdowns have significantly impacted his fantasy output. He was outstanding in 2020, but you wouldn’t know it in fantasy because injuries limited him to 10 games and because he scored only three times.

    Compare that to the last two seasons, when he’s averaged 19 touchdowns. Right, there’s no comparison.

    So while his average yards after contact have declined in each of the last five seasons, his broken-tackle rate plummeted this past year, and his yards per catch just hit a career-low, he’s remained elite largely because of his passing-game usage and total touchdowns.

    This is where the rubber meets the road for Ekeler in 2023. To remain elite, he’ll need to maintain high usage (including through the air) and sizeable scoring opportunities, all while trying to halt or reverse growing inefficiencies.

    Because he’s so integral to this offense and because the Chargers don’t have a strong handcuff operating behind him, Ekeler should be positioned for another big season.

    However, if the team opts to bring him back down to 2021 usage levels, and/or if he scores “only” 10-12 times instead of 18-20 — both entirely realistic scenarios — then he’ll have almost no shot at elite or even near-elite numbers.

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