One of the better stories of fantasy football in 2019 was the emergence of Austin Ekeler. A former undrafted free agent out of Western Colorado University, Ekeler came out of relative obscurity to not only be a viable fantasy football starter but one of the best at the running back position. With a new contract in hand and a lot of expectations in store, can Ekeler carry over his fantasy success into 2020 or will he fail to be more than a flash in the pan? Let’s take a look.
2019 was Ekeler’s breakout season
Prior to the start of last season, the big headline for the Chargers at the running back position wasn’t Ekeler but the contract hold-out by star Melvin Gordon. As the hold-out carried over to the regular season, the starting duties fell upon Ekeler. To that point, Ekeler hadn’t operated as much more than a very capable complement to Gordon. He had 554 yards rushing (5.2 yards-per-carry), 404 yards receiving (10.4 yards-per-reception), and six total touchdowns in 2018. But with the lead duties resting on the shoulders of Ekeler, how he would perform in the situation was a big question.
Ekeler would end up blowing expectations out of the water. While he didn’t put up flashy rushing numbers (132 carries, 557 yards, and three touchdowns), he put up incredible receiving stats (92 receptions, 993 yards, and eight touchdowns). In each of his first five games of the season, he had at least 81 yards from scrimmage (including 120+ yards in three of them) and six total touchdowns. Gordon would eventually return in Week 5 and the two running backs would end up splitting the workload.
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Ekeler would still end up producing terrific fantasy football stats as he still had six games over his final 10 with at least 75 yards from scrimmage. That would include a Week 14 explosion with 213 scrimmage yards (101 rushing, 112 receiving) on only 13 offensive touches. So despite the semi-reduced workload upon Gordon’s return, Ekeler would still end up finishing as the sixth highest-scoring running back in half point-per-reception (PPR) leagues (only 2.9 points behind Dalvin Cook for fifth).
Ekeler’s 2019 fantasy football breakout in numbers
Fantasy Point Differential
According to PFN’s Fantasy Points Differential metric, Ekeler would end up exceeding his expected fantasy point total in PPR (309, fourth-highest) by 15%. So not only did he have a big breakout year, he performed much better than expected. Especially considering the increased workload (132 rushing attempts, 108 targets) that Ekeler faced, he was even more impressive than expected in 2019.
Per PFN’s Consistency Score metric, Ekeler was not only one of the highest-scoring running backs in fantasy football last season, but he was also one of the most consistent as well. His 6.91 consistency score would be tied for the fourth-highest amongst all running backs in 2019. In PPR leagues, Ekeler only had one game all season where he scored less than 10 fantasy points while he had seven games where he scored at least 20 points.
Should we expect more of the same from Ekeler for fantasy in 2020?
What’s changed for the Chargers?
The biggest change for the Chargers is they will have a new quarterback under center following Philip Rivers’ departure to the Indianapolis Colts over the offseason. While the Chargers drafted eventual franchise quarterback Justin Herbert with the sixth overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, veteran Tyrod Taylor will be the Week 1 starter and possibly for most, if not all of the season. So while Taylor comes with a good history of being a valuable fantasy football quarterback when starting, his playing style differs with Rivers.
Rivers had a tendency to often check down or target running backs in the short passing game, which worked in Ekeler’s favor considering his elite receiving ability. However, Taylor is better known for his ability to escape pressure and scramble with the ball (whether it be designed or not). So there is rightfully some concern around Ekeler’s receiving projections for 2020 after seeing 100+ targets and catching over 90 passes in 2019. While Taylor’s scrambling ways may not favor Ekeler in the receiving game, it stands to be a plus for him in the run game.
Ekeler only saw double-digit carries in four of his 16 games in 2019, with only one over his final 12 games. So while Ekeler may see some negative regression as a receiver in 2020, he has huge potential to blow his rushing numbers out of the water now that he will receive a starters’ workload.
However, considering that very little changed about the Chargers core skill players (Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, and Hunter Henry all return), it’s within the realm of possibility that Ekeler could still approach similar target numbers in 2019, considering that is his specialty. The Chargers signed Ekeler to a four-year, $24.5 million dollar contract extension this offseason with the intent on him being a “bell cow” for them, so it would be foolish to think he won’t get anything less than what he can handle.
Fantasy Football Outlook
Despite finishing as the fourth-highest scoring running back in PPR leagues last season, Ekeler’s ADP is as the RB12, so a low-end RB1 on 12-team leagues. He is being drafted ahead of other running backs like Kenyan Drake and Aaron Jones and being drafted behind notables such as Josh Jacobs, Nick Chubb, and Miles Sanders. Even with the aforementioned negative regression as a receiver, Ekeler has a lot of untapped potential in the run game now that he will be the true lead back for the Chargers. So not only is it fair to expect him to remain amongst the top eight to 12 running backs in fantasy football, a top-six finish isn’t out of the realm of possibilities.
It’s crazy to think that someone like Jacobs (RB11) is being selected ahead of Ekeler when you consider Jacobs’ situation. He did rush for 1,150 yards and scored seven touchdowns on the ground but he barely contributed as a receiver for the Las Vegas Raiders. After turning a lowly 27 targets into 20 receptions for 166 yards and zero touchdowns, Jacobs doesn’t seem to be in a position to be able to improve upon those numbers significantly. The Raiders have seemingly added skill players left and right who could and will cut into Jacobs’ receiving upside. Besides drafting wide receivers Henry Ruggs, Bryan Edwards, and running back Lynn Bowden in the 2020 NFL Draft, the team also signed receiving specialists Theo Riddick and Devontae Booker as well. On top of that, Jacobs struggled down the stretch to stay healthy and ended up missing three games.
Ekeler has the unique upside of not only being an extremely safe selection because of his receiving floor but also because of room for growth in the opportunity and production area of running the football. This is especially the case in PPR leagues, Ekeler may see closer to 75-80 receptions, but could balance that out with more carries and opportunities to run the football. Plus with a dual-threat quarterback like Taylor, defenses will be on their toes and allow for less pressure in the trenches to be able to spy on the quarterback, which will only open up running lanes for Ekeler. Overall, Ekeler is not only one of the safest running backs to select in PPR leagues but he has the potential to improve upon his terrific 2019 season.
Despite what you may read or hear from others, Ekeler has all the talent and opportunity in the world to continue being a top running back in fantasy football. Don’t make the mistake in hesitating on grabbing him while you can in your draft.
Doug Moore is a fantasy football writer for Pro Football Network. Follow him on Twitter at @DMooreNFL.