It’s Austin Ekeler’s Time

It’s Austin Ekeler’s Time

Since 2019, we as fantasy football fans have wanted Ekeler to reach the next level. I think after a covid year and six missed games due to injuries, it's finally Austin Ekeler’s time to shine. Ekeler has the talent and now his team has surrounded him with a line. If there’s a year we find out what his true potential is in fantasy football, it's 2021.


Last Season


Austin Ekeler came into 2020 with high expectations, coming off a RB7 finish in 2019. 2020 quickly became a disappointment for the talented back, as he missed six games and failed to eclipse 1,000 yards from scrimmage (530 rushing, 403 receiving). Ekeler was also incredibly underwhelming in the TDs department, only scoring three TDs last year. 


Ekeler is a talented runner who relies on patience and burst, averaging 4.6 yards per carry (ypc) in 2020. Some advanced metrics to look at per Playerprofiler.com would be his true yards per carry (this metric eliminates breakaway runs from the YPC calculations). Ekeler’s numbers minus his breakaway runs (runs of 10 or more yards) were 4.5 YPC. One way to look at that stat is that Ekeler doesn’t produce a lot of breakaway runs. I chose to look at it as he was consistently good behind the league's worst offensive line. Anyone who watches a Chargers game knows Ekeler is talented, but few have given him the credit of being a good rushing back. I think this is the year we put respect on his name.

 

Dual Threat Talent


Pass-catching RBs are the most desired commodity in the fantasy football community. Since Austin Ekeler entered the league in 2017, he has averaged 475 rushing yds/season and 519 receiving yds/season. Ekeler’s catch rate last year was an outstanding 83.1 percent, but this was a downgrade from his previous season’s 85.2 percent catch rate. Take into account that both season’s he was either on pace for or was targeted over 100 times.


Here’s some stats to show you how good Ekeler is as a pass catcher. According to Playerprofiler.com, Austin Ekeler had a target share of 17.4%, running routes on 59.9% of passing plays. Ekeler was 8th in targets (65), and 5th in both receiving yards and receptions (403 yds and 54 recs) for running backs last year. Once again, considering this guy missed 6 games last year, he was incredibly efficient with his touches. He’s an open field beast whenever the ball is in his hands. He possesses the speed and patience to make something out of nothing, special traits for a player that's looking at a breakout year.


Offensive Line



The offensive line was ranked 32nd overall last year by Pro Football Focus. This was a unit that was injured, but besides that they were just atrocious. Factor in that the Chargers offensive line ranked dead last in the run block win rate. Then think about how good Ekeler had to be last year to put up 4.6 ypc. More importantly, how did he get 2.4 yards before contact? Ekeler has a lot of talent, which is how he was able to play so well with the worst line in the game.


This offseason was huge for Austin Ekeler’s stock because the Chargers added Cory Linsley through free agency. The All-Pro Center was exceptional in 2020 and was ranked as the best run blocking center in the league. Linsley should be a huge upgrade to help this terrible line get better. The Chargers also added guard/tackle Rashawn Slater at pick 13, Slater’s versatility and athleticism will make him a great asset at the 2nd level for Austin Ekeler. I see Slater and Linsley elevating this line easily past dead last and into the top 15. 


This line is going to be essential to Austin Ekeler’s groundwork. Last year he was limited to just one goal line carry which wasn’t good for his fantasy value. Therefore with new linemen, Ekeler could become a force this upcoming year.


Joe Lombardi and Justin Herbert


Justin Herbert came into last year as the 6th overall pick, and came out looking like the next big thing. For Austin Ekeler, adding Herbert to the mix was a perfect fit for the dual threat running back. Herbert targeted Ekeler an average of 7.1 times per game and had Austin Ekeler on pace for 113 targets over 16 games. If Ekeler had stayed healthy that would’ve put him at the top of the league for running back targets. If Herbert continues to target Ekeler as the number 2 receiving option, then it's safe to say the sky's the limit for his fantasy potential.


Last year new OC, Joe Lombardi, was in an offense that had parallels with the Chargers. The Saints utilize Alvin Kamara the same way that the Chargers want to use Austin Ekeler. Ekeler’s 16 game pace was nearly identical to Kamara’s number last year, minus Kamara’s massive TD edge. One thing to look into with Lombardi joining the Chargers is the play breakdown from last year. The Chargers offense rushed the ball 41.3% of the time while the Saints ran the ball, the 5th most in the league at 47.3%. Lombardi’s addition may swing the Chargers toward a more balanced offense, essentially giving Austin Ekeler more touches.The Chargers are looking good this year and hopefully they incorporate the run more and give Austin Ekeler the ball.


This chart displays Alvin Kamara’s season vs Austin Ekeler’s 2020 pace. (I took off week 4 stats for Ekeler because of his early first quarter exit.)

Metric 

Alvin Kamara 2020 numbers

Austin Ekeler’s 2020 Pace 

Carries

187

202

YPC

5.0

4.6

Rushing Yards

932

929

Rushing TDs

16

1

Targets

107

113

Receptions

83

94

Receiving Yard

756

712

Receiving TDs

5

3



Improvements in the Red Zone and his back ups


Last year Ekeler only had one redzone carry, something that has to be improved next year. While not a big powerful back, Ekeler is a very patient runner who lets the line open up holes and bursts through. Last year this was a problem because his line sucked, but hopefully with this year's additions we get to see more of Ekeler getting goal line carries. Having an o-line that could get a push will help boost Ekeler’s red zone/goal line carries. Even without the goal line carries last year Ekeler got 27 red zone touches in 10 games and should be utilized as a check down back for Herbert.


I know they have a plethora of bigger running backs that are more suited for the goal line, but none of them are equivalent to Ekeler, talent-wise. Their back ups seem to be cut from the same cloth, but none of them ran away with the team last year minus Ekeler. The only one who had a  decent year was Kalen Ballage, and even then he averaged 3.3 ypc, three TDs and 290 yds on the ground. This shows that the backups couldn't overcome the bad line, unlike Austin Ekeler.  So while they may get some goal line carries I am not worried about Ekeler’s numbers going down in any other department. 


Conclusion


Last year was looking like a big season for Ekeler and the fantasy community was buzzing over him. Missing 6 games did set him back, but his numbers were still great despite being injured. I did calculations on Simulated Football’s fantasy calculator for 16 games based on his 2020 pace and found that Ekeler would be putting up 929 yds, one TD on the ground and would have 94 recs, 712 yds and three TDs. Totaling 282.1 fantasy pts in espn standard leagues, this would put him at RB4 in 2020. If Ekeler has anywhere near his pace number this year then we are looking at a steal at RB13, someone that could put up top five numbers and win your league in 2021. My prediction for Austin Ekeler’s production in 2021 is 950 rushing yards, 5-6 TDs, 750-900 receiving yards and 6-8 TDs on 100 recs. 



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