Somewhat of an enigma when it comes to fantasy football, what is the outlook for Austin Ekeler in 2021 as his ADP continues to divide opinion? After an injury-impacted 2020 season, can Ekeler return to the heights of being a No. 1 back for fantasy?
Austin Ekeler’s fantasy outlook for 2021
The 2020 season was set to indicate how the Los Angeles Chargers planned to use Ekeler in the post-Melvin Gordon era. There was so much discussion about how many carries Ekeler would have and how that would impact his fantasy outlook.
We got a glimpse early in the season, as Ekeler averaged 15.7 carries per game through the first three weeks. In that time, his usage varied between 12 and 19 carries. However, there appeared to be a negative impact on his role in the receiving game. Ekeler had just 5 targets for 58 yards in the first two games. That changed in Week 3 when he caught all 11 of his targets for 84 yards.
Unfortunately, Ekeler was injured in Week 4 and ended up missing the next six games. When he returned in Week 12, we got another insight into his usage. Ekeler averaged 11.2 carries and 8 targets per game in the final six weeks. Therefore, the signs were promising that Ekeler would see somewhere around 20 touches a game. Yet, the change in coaching staff now somewhat throws that back up in the air.
Will Ekeler’s usage be similar to that of Alvin Kamara?
The arrival of Joe Lombardi as offensive coordinator brings some unknowns. His offense was not all that impressive when he was the OC in Detroit for two years. Still, Lombardi comes from a system in New Orleans where they have demonstrated how to utilize a back of a similar skill set to Ekeler in Alvin Kamara.
In the last four seasons, Kamara has regularly been a top-five running back for fantasy. That is despite never having 200 carries in a season. His role in the passing game has been the key. Since being drafted, Kamara has averaged 102.3 targets, 81.5 receptions, 706 receiving yards, and 3.8 touchdowns per season.
That is the kind of role that we could potentially see from Ekeler. Similar to Kamara, there is not a dominant secondary back in the Chargers’ system to challenge for 300+ touches out of the backfield. Ekeler could easily be in line to see 225-250 touches in 2021.
Receptions are more valuable than rushing attempts
The reason the likes of Ekeler and Kamara can compete with the bell-cow running backs in terms of fantasy outlook is the premium afforded to receptions over carries. If you play in a league that offers points per reception, that disparity grows even further.
Research into expected fantasy points and Fantasy Points Differential demonstrated that between 2011 and 2019, a carry was — on average — worth 58% of a reception in non-PPR. That dropped to just 30% in PPR formats.
Thus, players like Ekeler can still be valuable fantasy contributors with fewer overall touches than their rivals, as long as a large percentage of those touches are receptions.
An element for concern with Ekeler’s fantasy outlook in 2020 was the transition from Philip Rivers to Justin Herbert under center. Would Herbert target his running back as much as Rivers had, or would he lean more on his receivers and tight ends?
If we take Ekeler’s final six-game pace after returning from injury and extrapolate that out over 16 games, we can see that was not the case. Had Ekeler averaged 8 targets per game all season, he would have set a career-high with 128 targets.
Therefore, given what we saw from Herbert, plus what we know about the Saints’ offense, we can feel reasonably confident that Ekeler should be involved heavily in the Chargers’ passing offense in 2021.
This allows us to be somewhat bullish on Ekeler’s fantasy projections for 2021. Discounting the games he was injured, Ekeler averaged around 12.5 carries per game last year. A projection of around 200-220 carries is reasonable over a 17-game period.
Ekeler’s projected 2021 fantasy line
- 200 carries, 975 rushing yards, 8 touchdowns
- 125 targets, 100 receptions, 950 receiving yards, 7.5 touchdowns
Those projections would expect to see Ekeler finish among the top 10 fantasy RBs for 2021.
Austin Ekeler’s ADP
Ekeler’s ADP for 2021 redraft leagues is 13.2 in half-point PPR formats on Sleeper, slipping to 20.9 in superflex formats. Fleaflicker has Ekeler with an ADP of 13, with a range of between 11 and 15 on average. Meanwhile, in the high-stakes National Fantasy Championship format, Ekeler has an ADP of 9.73.
Should you draft Ekeler at his current ADP in 2021?
It’s a big ask to use a Round 2 pick on Ekeler after he missed six games in 2020. Still, in the previous three seasons, Ekeler had missed just two games in total. Therefore, while we cannot ignore the injury risk, the focus needs to be on Ekeler’s fantasy outlook in 2021 instead of his injury history.
The key element to focus on for Ekeler is what does his competition look like? The answer there is reasonably simple — not very much.
The Chargers have Joshua Kelley, Justin Jackson, Larry Rountree, and Darius Bradwell sharing the backfield with Ekeler. While we don’t expect Ekeler to carry the ball 300 times, there is no one there that appears to be a major challenge to take away 200 or more carries.
There are plenty of running backs with question marks available at the back end of the first round and into the early second round. However, in PPR formats, Ekeler’s fantasy outlook has a ceiling higher than most others. If he sees a similar role to Kamara’s, he could realistically end the season as a top-five running back for 2021.