Austin Ekeler Fantasy Outlook: Will he be a league-winning RB1 in 2021?

A year removed from an RB4 finish, the excitement surrounding Los Angeles Chargers RB Austin Ekeler has tapered off after an injury-shortened 2020 season. Should it, though? Can Ekeler return to RB1 status in fantasy football thanks in part to both his immense skill set, coaching changes, and substantial additions to the Chargers’ offense?

Austin Ekeler soured managers’ opinions due to injuries in 2020

Few running backs came into the 2020 fantasy season with more excitement than Ekeler. After all, he had just come off an RB4 finish in 2019 thanks to his play and high involvement in the passing game. With the Chargers’ backfield to himself after Melvin Gordon went to the Broncos, the path for touches was wide open for Ekeler.

Ekeler ended the season with a career-high 1,550 total yards and 11 touchdowns while averaging 19.3 ppg. He was one of just four running backs to cross the 300-point threshold (309), averaging an incredibly efficient 0.87 points per opportunity and 1.35 points per touch.

In the first three weeks of 2020, Ekeler was on pace to blow these numbers out of the water. He was the RB6 through three games, rushing 47 times for 236 yards and 1 touchdown while catching all 16 targets for 142 yards. He was ahead of pace in scoring at 19.9 ppg (0.94 pts/opp).

Unfortunately, this is also when the wheels fell off due to injuries, leading Ekeler to miss a sizeable chunk of the season but teasing fantasy managers with progress videos. 

Ekeler missed six games due to a Grade 2 hamstring strain

I don’t know if “Grade 2 strain” does this injury justice. Ekeler revealed on his Twitch stream that his hamstring injury suffered in Week 3 literally detached part of it from the bone. This led to a consistent stream of “is Austin Ekeler playing this week?” updates as fantasy players clamored to have their RB1 back in their roster.

Ekeler remained on the injured reserve until his return in Week 12. That, unfortunately, was likely too late to help managers secure playoff spots. Those who survived long enough to see him come back, however, saw an Ekeler that didn’t miss a step. From Weeks 12-17, he was the RB6 again, rushing 67 times for 282 yards along with 37 receptions on 48 targets for 2 touchdowns. He averaged 17.2 ppg and 0.98 pts/opp to close out the season.

The fact that he only played in nine games has caused many to overlook the fact that Ekeler may have had a better year in 2020 despite what the end-of-season totals or standing would lead you to believe:

  • In 2019, Ekeler averaged 8.3 rushes per game for 34.8 yards and 0.2 TDs, along with 5.8 receptions (6.8 targets) for 62.1 yards and 0.5 TDs. 
  • In 2020, he averaged 12.67 rushes, 57.5 yards, and 0.1 TDs per game, with 5.89 receptions (7.11 targets) for 44.56 yards and .22 TDs. Push this to 16 games, and Ekeler ends the season with 1,633.8 total yards and 5.6 touchdowns on 296.9 touches.

Furthermore, this would have resulted in 289.6 PPR points (0.97 pts/touch) and an RB4 finish in 2020 instead of his fragmented finish as RB26.

What is not talked about enough are the Chargers’ changes during the offseason, which could have him primed to reach new heights in 2021.

The Chargers enter 2021 as the NFL’s most improved team

Whether it was free agency, coaching decisions, or the draft, the Chargers won with every addition. 

It should come as no surprise to say the Chargers had one of the worst offensive lines in 2020. It’s clear the Chargers’ brass knew this was a hot topic, making massive moves to rectify this deficiency. 

The Chargers’ 2021 free-agency plan involved two key signings: Matt Feiler and Corey Linsley. Since 2017, Feiler has appeared in 45 games, including 40 starts at both tackle and guard for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

At the time of his signing, Linsley was the highest-paid center in the league. He earned first-team All-Pro center in 2020 and was widely regarded as the top free-agent center of the 2021 offseason. The team continued their concerted effort to bolster the line in the NFL Draft. With the No. 13 overall pick, they selected Rashawn Slater out of Northwestern.

The new coaching staff should bolster Ekeler’s fantasy success

What has been overlooked due to the on-field additions are those in the coaching personnel. After firing Anthony Lynn, the Chargers hired Brandon Staley and Joe Lombardi as head coach and offensive coordinator.

Lombardi should be the name that gets fantasy managers excited for Ekeler and the Chargers’ offense. He served on the New Orleans Saints coaching staff from 2016 to 2020. If memory serves me correctly, he did well with this receiving back named Alvin Kamara — ever heard of him? 

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not saying Ekeler is Kamara. However, their skill sets are certainly deserving of comparison. Both are electric rushers and even better pass catchers. As legitimate offensive weapons, they are just as comfortable in the backfield or the slot. Ekeler could, and should, be used similarly for the Chargers as Kamara in New Orleans — the best possible news for fantasy production. 

Ekeler is an RB1 for fantasy in 2021 with top-five upside in PPR leagues

In 2021, fantasy running backs who present league-winning upside fall off a cliff fairly quickly. More and more backfields are split by committee approaches, limiting potential upside. The trend of drafts this season, more times than not, will be to go running back early and often. There might be no better selection than Ekeler, especially with him going anywhere from the mid-to-late second round.

Is anyone honestly concerned with either Justin Jackson or Joshua Kelley pushing Ekeler for touches? If so, then I don’t think we were looking at the same film. 

I fully believe Ekeler could be looking at a career season in 2021. He could end up as a top-five running back for fantasy this season. While his receiving usage gets the most attention, his usage in the red zone does not get enough consideration. His 27 red-zone touches in 10 games were the exact total he received in all of 2019. Throw in the bump in red-zone scoring percentage from 52.8% to 57.1% with Justin Herbert, and everything points to Ekeler being on the verge of a massive season in 2021.

Let’s revisit Kamara one more time for an example of what could be possible for Ekeler. Kamara has recorded at least 1,500 yards from scrimmage and 13 touchdowns three times in his first four seasons. In the one year he didn’t reach those marks, he finished with 1,330 total yards and 6 touchdowns.

This is the fantasy upside Ekeler brings to your fantasy team in 2021. He is a top-five running back masquerading as an RB2 on draft day.

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Tommy Garrett is a writer for Pro Football Network covering the NFL and fantasy football. You can read more of his work here and follow him at @TommygarrettPFN on Twitter.

Tommy Garrett is a Fantasy Analyst for Pro Football Network and is a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association (FSWA). You can read all of Tommy’s work here, listen to him on PFN’s Fantasy Football podcast, and check out his contributions in PFN’s free fantasy newsletter. Give him a follow on Twitter: @TommyGarrettPFN.

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