Austin Ekeler Should Be a Fantasy Football Star in 2021
Plenty of people have high hopes for the Los Angeles Chargers as we head into the 2021 NFL season.
With their bright, young, innovative head coach, a talented, young quarterback, and a plethora of defensive playmakers at their disposal, they are expected to mount a serious challenge to the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC West.
If we like them to do well in the real world, then we should be high on their offensive playmakers in fantasy football, right?
Well, in the case of running back Austin Ekeler, I certainly am.
Ekeler Is Already a Fantasy Stud
It may come as a shock to some, but Ekeler is the overall RB10 in PPR formats since his rookie season back in 2017. This is despite 35 backs amassing more rushing yards than his 1,901 and 45 scoring more rushing touchdowns. Ekeler has nine in his career.
How has he been able to deliver so much fantasy production? Through the air.
Ekeler is fourth among all running backs in both receptions and receiving yards since 2017, catching 212 balls for 2,079 yards. He has scored 16 receiving touchdowns in this span, too.
Ekeler missed six games in 2020, a major reason why he managed just 116 rushing attempts on which he gained 530 yards. He was okay running the ball from an efficiency point of view, averaging 0.01 Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP) per play. This was good for 29th out of 48 running backs with at least 100 rush attempts last season.
But the Chargers as a whole were dreadful running the ball. Pro Football Focus graded them as the worst run-blocking unit in the NFL. The team averaged -0.04 Adjusted Rushing NEP per play in 2020 -- good for dead last.
Despite less than stellar efficiency and despite missing almost a third of the season, Ekeler still returned serious fantasy value when he was on the field thanks to his passing work.
He finished with 54 receptions for 403 yards (both marks ranking fifth among all backs). This helped him secure 16.5 PPR points per game, good for RB9 numbers.
Changes Are Coming
The Chargers' offense should look quite different in 2021.
Staley brought former Detroit Lions offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi in to run the offense after Lombardi has spent the past five seasons on the New Orleans Saints' coaching staff as the quarterbacks coach. The Saints have made a living out of featuring their backs in the passing game, with players like Alvin Kamara thriving in that scheme.
Ekeler is his own man, of course, and coach-centric analysis can be dangerous when projected future performance.
But we have a coach who should be inclined towards sending passes the way of his running backs, and Ekeler is the best man for this job on the Chargers roster.
Ekeler and Justin Herbert did establish some chemistry last season, and it was not merely a case of dumping it off and hoping for the best. Herbert averaged 6.98 adjusted yards per attempt when looking for Ekeler.
Other factors are in play that could help Ekeler on the ground, as well. The Chargers may be able to enjoy some positive game script in the new season, facing the 11th-easiest schedule according to projected opponent win totals from Sharp Football Stats.
Even with players such as Justin Jackson and Joshua Kelley sharing the carries, Ekeler could easily set a new career-high in rushing attempts in the new year, beating the 132 he had in 2019. Mind you, don't write Jackson off completely. He only had 59 carries last season, but these brought him 270 yards. He averaged an above-average 0.03 Rushing NEP per play.
The Chargers also made several moves to bolster their offensive line, good news for both Herbert and the Chargers running backs. They signed center Corey Linsley in free agency, a player who PFF graded as the best run-blocking center in the NFL last season as a member of the Green Bay Packers.
In the NFL Draft, they spent a first-round pick on offensive tackle Rashawn Slater, a player who showed considerable prowess as both a run and pass blocker in college while at Northwestern.
These moves should vastly improve the Chargers' line, which can only get better after last season's struggles. Especially when it came to running the ball.
This only improves Ekeler's chances of thriving in both phases on offense -- and not merely relying on his pass-catching to get him through the year.
Ekeler has shown that he can be an RB1 when things are not exactly going to plan. And with all the improvements going on around him, he should see his game flourish.
This makes him well worth a late first-round pick in fantasy drafts as we approach the season. Grabbing a piece of an offense with Justin Herbert at the helm can only be good news, wouldn't you say?