Los Angeles Chargers running back Austin Ekeler has always looked good in small doses. The former undrafted free agent is one of the most explosive and dangerous running backs when he’s actually on the field, but he’s never been able to earn a full workload with Melvin Gordon around. Gordon’s now in Denver, so can Ekeler thrive as the leader of the Los Angeles backfield?
2020 Fantasy Football Profile: Austin Ekeler
Austin Ekeler was one of the biggest steals in all of fantasy last year. With Melvin Gordon holding out, Ekeler entered the season as the starting running back. The former undrafted free agent thrived with the opportunity and played like one of the best running backs in football. Through the first five weeks of the season, Ekeler recorded 227 rushing yards, 39 receptions, 356 receiving yards, and a combined six touchdowns to be the RB2 overall.
Gordon came back in Week 4 and reclaimed the starting job by Week 6. This obviously affected Ekeler’s overall performance, but he still managed to bring fantasy value. Ekeler averaged 16.3 points per game over the final 11 games of the season, making him the RB10 and, ironically, better than Melvin Gordon. Overall, Ekeler ended his breakout campaign as the RB4, ahead of everybody aside from Christian McCaffrey, Aaron Jones, and Ezekiel Elliott.
The Chargers had no issue giving Ekeler a full workload in Gordon’s absence. Ekeler averaged just under 20 touches per game over the first five games of the season, and it wasn’t all passing work. Had Ekeler maintained his early-season pace, he would’ve ended the year with 189 carries on 726 yards and 10 touchdowns. This is pretty solid production, especially when you consider how dangerous he can be in the passing game.
As previously mentioned, Austin Ekeler is now the top dog in the Los Angeles Chargers backfield. Even though Ekeler hasn’t handled a full 16-game workload before, there’s every reason to believe he’ll have the opportunity to do it in 2020. Anthony Lynn is still the head coach, and the Chargers signed Ekeler to a hefty extension in the offseason. Lynn clearly believes Ekeler can be a full-time starter, and Ekeler should see the vast majority of the snaps in the upcoming season.
Unfortunately for Ekeler, he’ll be dealing with a new quarterback. Philip Rivers isn’t the player he once was, but he was great for Ekeler’s fantasy value. Rivers had one of the highest checkdown rates in the league, and Ekeler thrived with that high target share.
This year, Ekeler is going to be catching passes from Tyrod Taylor and Justin Herbert. Taylor has some starting experience, and history shows he doesn’t like to target running backs. Taylor played with peak LeSean McCoy from 2015 to 2017. Despite being one of the best receiving backs in the league, McCoy averaged just 61 targets per season with Taylor under center. By comparison, Ekeler received 108 targets last year.
Nobody knows what Justin Herbert will be on the NFL level, but his college tape suggests he won’t check down too often. Herbert has a cannon of an arm and is at his best pushing the ball downfield. He lacks short-area accuracy, which is obviously bad news for Ekeler. No matter who ends up starting, it’s safe to assume Ekeler is going to see a decent reduction in his targets.
Austin Ekeler Average Draft Position
According to Fantasy Football Calculator, Austin Ekeler is currently going off the board with the 17th overall pick. This makes him the 12th running back selected and puts him right in the same range as Kenyan Drake, Aaron Jones, and Miles Sanders.
This feels about right for Ekeler. If Rivers was still in town, I’d be parading Ekeler as a top-five running back. Unfortunately, the passing volume just won’t be there. Ekeler is one of the best receiving backs in the league, and he’s still going to get his fair share of looks in the passing game. However, Taylor’s penchant for targeting receivers and tight ends means that Ekeler won’t come close to hitting the 90-100 target mark.
Ultimately, Austin Ekeler should finish the season with 60-70 targets and roughly 200 carries. This is the ideal workload for a low-end RB1, and he’d be a great selection near the end of the second round.
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