Los Angeles Chargers running backs Joshua Kelley and Justin Jackson have a massive opportunity to help your fantasy football team. Starting RB Austin Ekeler exited Sunday’s game in the first quarter with what was initially described as a possible hyperextended knee. After the game, Ekeler was spotted on crutches, and the team was aware of a hamstring injury and the hyperextension. While we still do not know the severity, Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn said, “it didn’t look good.” The team is preparing to be without Ekeler for multiple weeks.
Update: Reports are that Ekeler’s hyperextended knee and hamstring injury will keep him on the sidelines for four to six weeks. This would make Ekeler’s most likely return to football after the Week 10 bye when the Chargers take a two-game road trip to Denver and Buffalo in Week 11 and 12. Ekeler is currently seeking a second opinion on his injury.
What do Chargers running backs have to compensate for?
In 2019, Ekeler averaged the sixth-most fantasy points per game at RB and, with a clean bill of health, appeared in all 16 games, scoring over 300 points and finishing as RB4. He was an effective rusher, yet his receiving work set himself apart with 92 catches for 993 yards, second to only Christian McCaffrey in both marks. The Chargers’ attempt at replacing Ekeler would be a tall task for most starting NFL running backs, especially if they are not willing to change their gameplan.
Ekeler’s versatility in the passing game displayed itself in his ability to line up all over the formation. He had 24 snaps at wide receiver in 2020, and that will be where the Chargers face their most important choices. With 16 receptions through three weeks, these safety valves and underneath routes are a large part of play designs. Ekeler’s effectiveness in the area could force the offense to change how things are run if they cannot replicate his contribution.
Is Joshua Kelley your new desired Chargers running back?
Former UCLA Bruin and fourth-round 2020 NFL Draft pick Joshua Kelley is the expected candidate to start for the Chargers. For four weeks, Kelley has 52 carries for 174 yards and a score to go along with several receptions for an additional 84 yards. Currently RB38 in PPR scoring, Kelley has caused concern for players that drafted Ekeler early after logging 37 touches through the first two weeks of the season, scoring 12 and 13.3 points, respectively.
Kelley’s usage, particularly in Week 2, points to him being the man the Chargers will turn to first. Somewhere between 50 and 60% rostered in leagues (depending on your platform), there’s still enough of a likelihood that he’s available. Taking over lead back duties should see him replicate his Week 2 production when he finished as RB25 after a steady workload against the Kansas City Chiefs. A low-end RB2, high-end Flex play is possible with the 21 touches that Ekeler was averaging through the first three weeks of the 2020 season.
PFN’s live blog of Day 3 of the NFL Draft saw analysts Tony Pauline and Andrew DiCecco react to the Chargers selection of Kelley.
“Pauline: Joshua Kelley is an underrated ball carrier, who, like his teammate Darnay Holmes, looked great at the Senior Bowl. He’s an explosive back that will do well as a rotational ball carrier/situational runner.
DiCecco: Chargers get a steal in UCLA’s Joshua Kelley. Kelley is another player who made the most of a strong pre-draft process, shining on the grand stages of the Senior Bowl and NFL Combine. An intriguing blend of size, speed, and balance. Like the Kelley-Ekeler tandem.”
What can we expect from Justin Jackson?
A third-year pro, Justin Jackson, like Kelley, popped in his rookie season but could not build momentum after a foot injury caused him to miss nine contests last year. Jackson is a jack of all trades master of none type of player. A talented all-around RB, he displayed good vision and was a decisive runner in his time at Northwestern, where he is their all-time leading rusher.
With a healthy Ekeler, Kelley saw 12, 25, and 10 touches respectively during the first three weeks of this season, and somewhere between eight and 12 touches is where Jackson should slot in as he assumes the duties of Kelley. Entertaining the idea of a 50/50 split between the two would be the only thing that could lead to Jackson’s fantasy relevance outside of 14 to 16 team leagues.
While Ekeler is injured, Jackson will eventually have a top-24 fantasy day. The problem is knowing when to start him. Just as there will be successes, there will be games where he sees five carries and catches a single pass. Rookie quarterback Justin Herbert has looked like the real deal after taking over as the emergency starter. Gone is the time of Philip Rivers checking down to his running backs and increasing their PPR potential. Herbert is pushing the ball downfield, creating rushing opportunities by backing up opposing safeties.
Andrew Thomas Jordan is an editor and analyst for Pro Football Network covering fantasy football: dynasty, redraft, best ball, DFS, and more. You can follow him @The_ATJ on Twitter and hear him weekly as co-host of The Fantasy Force Podcast.