Here we go again with the Austin Ekeler injury merry-go-round. The Los Angeles Chargers running back is dealing with yet another hamstring injury that has put his availability for Week 1 against the Washington Football Team in doubt. How will his absence affect the fantasy football landscape?
Will Austin Ekeler play in Week 1?
Ekeler was a non-participant in the Chargers’ Wednesday practice. That’s rarely a good sign for a player’s Sunday availability — particularly when it’s the first week of the season.
This news is even more troubling because Ekeler missed six games with hamstring and knee issues in 2020. Nevertheless, he still managed to produce 530 rushing yards and another 403 receiving.
The Chargers planned to rely heavily on Ekeler in QB Justin Herbert’s second NFL season. Los Angeles took every precaution to keep Ekeler healthy, including keeping him out of every preseason game.
Yet, an issue seems to have cropped up.
How Ekeler’s injury could affect the Chargers in Week 1
“I think speaking specifically from the defensive perspective, anytime you can activate the running back in the passing game, you have to truly defend all five eligible receivers, it’s a much tougher cover,” Chargers first-year head coach Brandon Staley said on the Rich Eisen Show recently.
“And that’s what Austin [Ekeler] forces you to do. He provides you a lot of different variations of where you can align him within the formation, and you can create a lot of hybrid groupings because of him. And I think he really fits our run scheme. … He’s a complete back, and I think he certainly gives us a big-time weapon on offense.”
Staley had hoped to fire that weapon against a loaded Washington front seven, forcing the team’s deep bench of pass rushers to at least think twice before teeing off on Herbert.
But if Ekeler can’t go, the burden of balance will fall on backups Justin Jackson, Joshua Kelley, and Larry Rountree.
Jackson has 676 yards and 2 carries in three NFL seasons with the Chargers. Kelley was a fourth-round pick in 2020 who averaged 3.2 yards per carry as a rookie. Larry Rountree, selected 198th overall by Los Angeles in the 2021 NFL Draft, is in line to make his NFL debut.
Austin Ekeler fantasy football outlook
For the last two seasons, Austin Ekeler has been one of the elite running backs in both the NFL and fantasy football. Ekeler was the RB4 while averaging 19.3 ppg (PPR) in 2019 and saw similar success last season when on the field. Unfortunately, injuries derailed his chance of a repeat performance in 2020 as Ekeler suffered a Grade 2 hamstring injury early in Week 4, causing him to miss the next six weeks.
With that said, when on the field, Ekeler was just as electric as the bolt adorning his helmet. He averaged 19.8 opportunities, 102.1 total yards 0.3 TDs, and 18.1 fantasy points per game (RB6).
Hopes for Ekeler are sky-high in 2021. The Chargers are a team on the rise, and the addition of Joe Lombardi has Ekeler primed for a role similar to Alvin Kamara as Lombardi comes from the Saints’ system. Unfortunately, Ekeler’s Week 1 status is in doubt after popping up on the injury report as a DNP for Wednesday’s practice [September 8] with a hamstring injury. If Ekeler were either limited or to miss Week 1, the Chargers would employ a committee approach with Justin Jackson, Larry Roundtree, and Joshua Kelley.
This is also a brutal matchup as they take on a Washington Football Team in Week 1 that allowed the third-fewest fantasy points to opposing RBs at just 18.78 per game. If Ekeler plays, you have to start him, given his talent, as a low-end RB1. But should he miss, the matchup and committee approach leave the rest as flex plays at best but likely a situation to avoid.