Joshua Kelley Fantasy Outlook: Will the Los Angeles Chargers’ RB Serve as Austin Ekeler’s Handcuff?

    Los Angeles Chargers RB Joshua Kelley is battling for a coveted backup role behind a heavily utilized starter. What is his 2023 fantasy outlook?

    At PFN, we’ve researched more than 350 fantasy football players, trying to identify which ones are overrated, underrated, and priced right. With that in mind, here is Los Angeles Chargers RB Joshua Kelley’s fantasy outlook for 2023.

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    Joshua Kelley’s 2023 Fantasy Outlook

    It’s unclear what the Chargers have been doing with their backfield. Scratch that; it’s very clear. But that doesn’t mean it makes sense.

    Ever since Melvin Gordon left for Denver three years ago, Austin Ekeler’s role has steadily increased from 14.0 touches per game in Gordon’s final Chargers season to 17.0 in 2020, 17.3 in 2021, and then 18.3 in 2022. He’s become a perennial fantasy star.

    But unlike most teams, L.A. hasn’t had a clearly defined handcuff since Ekeler took over the backfield. They drafted Joshua Kelley in the fourth round in 2020, followed by Larry Rountree III in the sixth in 2021, and then Isaiah Spiller in the fourth last year. None of them have broken through. In fact, Spiller looked atrocious on 18 rookie carries, compiling only 2.3 yards per attempt.

    In fairness, that’s better than Rountree’s career 2.2 ypc mark on 49 carries. Not that efficiency early in one’s career is an entirely accurate indicator of future production. But it sure doesn’t look good, and it likely impacted the Chargers’ decision to give Ekeler the biggest workload of his career.

    This is where Kelley re-enters the picture as an intriguing fantasy prospect. This franchise passed on adding another RB in the draft or free agency this year. Perhaps they’ll make a big move if Ekeler misses time. Or maybe they’ll wait for the market to soften in September and then sign a half-capable veteran to a cheap contract.

    But as it currently stands, Kelley has the best shot at backing up Ekeler in what has arguably become a win-now season for the otherwise relatively young Chargers. Ekeler might not be back next year. Keenan Allen will turn 32 next April. Just as shockingly, Mike Williams will somehow turn 30 next October.

    If this is indeed a win-now season, then the Chargers have left themselves surprisingly thin in the backfield … unless, perhaps, they believe one of their backups is ready to step up if needed.

    The 25-year-old Kelley has always had the size and receiving-game chops to be a three-down NFL back. The biggest question concerns his talent level. Can he not only absorb 14+ touches per game if called upon but also net enough yards to keep this offense balanced?

    Because in the last two seasons, Ekeler has accounted for 14% of Justin Herbert’s passing yards and 16% of his targets. Ekeler is an essential component of an offense that keeps defenses guessing.

    Could Kelley showcase any semblance of comparable abilities? He’s not Ekeler, and in fairness, presumably never will be. But if he could become a top 20-24 running back, it would at least relieve the pressure on a backfield that might otherwise become useless without their all-world RB.

    A key for Kelley is that he improved in a number of areas last season, including amassing a career-high 4.2 ypc, aided by a career-best 1.8 yards after first contact.

    His 83 touches nearly doubled that of the next-most-utilized Chargers running back (Sony Michel). He certainly earned his team’s trust, as evidenced by his increased role in the final four weeks, when he earned 33 carries and nine targets.

    MORE: 2023 Fantasy Football RB Rankings

    On the flip side, after reeling in an incredible 28 of 29 targets in his first two campaigns, he caught only 14 of 25 last season while committing an astounding five drops. He’ll need to clean that up in Year 4 if he has any realistic chance at fantasy relevance.

    As it stands, Kelley won’t excite many managers on draft day. But he’s a must-add if you pick Ekeler, and he has the best shot in this backfield of flirting with streaming value if Ekeler goes down.

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