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Fantasy football player profile: Austin Ekeler

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(As fantasy football dives headlong into draft season, some players warrant a little extra attention. All August, Dom Cintorino and Adam Pfeifer will do deep dives into some of the notable names. Follow along with our player profiles series. Today’s profile: Austin Ekeler)

Fantasy football value 2021 – Austin Ekeler

All Austin Ekeler does is produce. Since entering the NFL back in 2017, Ekeler is averaging 4.7 yards per carry and nearly 10 yards per catch, as he’s been one of the most efficient running backs in football. That continued in the 2020 campaign, as Ekeler was fantastic in 10 full games, rushing for 530 yards on 116 carries, while adding 403 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 54 receptions. In those 10 weeks, Ekeler was the RB8 in PPR formats, while his 54 receptions in those active games were eight more than the next closest running back. During those contests, Ekeler also averaged 16.5 PPR points and six targets per game. And while Ekeler is a very good runner, he truly changes the game as a receiver.

For example, in his fantasy football bold predictions piece, our Nelson Sousa said Ekeler would be the only 100-catch running back in 2021.

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In 2020, Ekeler averaged 1.71 yards per route run, sixth among qualified running backs. There are plenty of running backs who can catch passes out of the backfield but not nearly as many who can play wide receiver — and there is a difference. Ekeler lined up in the slot 10% of the time last year, while also operating out wide 9.3% of the time. He also averaged 23.5 pass routes per game, which, to put into perspective, was just below league-leader J.D. McKissic of Washington, who led all running backs in pass routes (399, 24.9 per game). And among all running backs with at least 40 targets last season, Ekeler’s 6.2 yards per target ranked 10th in the league. But unlike many other running backs in the league, Ekeler is often the first read in this Chargers offense. His 35 targets as the first read were good for fifth among all running backs, and that is with Ekeler missing six games. You can easily make the case that as far as pure receiving running backs, Ekeler is right there with Christian McCaffrey and Alvin Kamara. He’s that damn good:

Fast forward to 2021, and there is a lot to like about Ekeler in fantasy land. Sure, his absolute ceiling for carries in a season is 200, and even that feels a bit high, especially with Joe Lombardi now calling the plays in Los Angeles. During his time as an offensive coordinator, Lombardi’s offenses have leaned on the pass, which is enticing when it comes to Ekeler. During Lombardi’s time in 2014 and 2015 as the offensive coordinator in Detroit, the Lions ranked seventh and first in passing play percentage (62.4% and 65.6%). Then he spent a few years with the Saints offense, an offense that has targeted the running back position as much as any team in the NFL. Look for Lombardi to utilize Ekeler similar to how the Saints have used Kamara in the past, which has obviously been very conducive to fantasy success, despite never reaching the 200-carry mark. And while he won’t be among the league leaders in rushing attempts, expect Ekeler to remain efficient on the ground, especially with the Chargers continuing to improve the offensive line. Over the last two seasons, Los Angeles has added Bryan Bulaga, Corey Linsley and Rashawn Slater, which should do wonders for this rushing attack. In 2020, the Chargers ranked dead last in run-blocking, according to Pro Football Focus. And per FTN’s advanced offensive line stats, they also averaged the sixth-fewest yards before contact in the league (1.22). The overall success of the ground game should be much better in 2021, which is important considering Ekeler’s rushing volume won’t exactly be elite. 

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Fantasy football ADP stock watch – Austin Ekeler

At the moment, per the FTN ADP tool, Ekeler is being drafted as the ninth running back off the board. He is going anywhere from the back end of the first round and early part of the second, but with news impacting other running backs, it is very possible that he settles in as a first-round selection, especially in PPR formats. For me, McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook, Derrick Henry, Kamara and Ezekiel Elliott are all comfortably ahead of Ekeler, regardless of format. But after that, particularly in PPR leagues, Ekeler is in play as the next best running back, potentially ahead of Saquon Barkley and Jonathan Taylor. Deciding where to draft Ekeler in 0.5 PPR leagues is a bit difficult, as players like Aaron Jones and Nick Chubb are also very strong, with both offering more carries and touchdown potential. He seems to be a league-specific player but if Ekeler is the unquestioned goal line back in a fast-pace, high-scoring Chargers offense, the upside is massive.

NFL fantasy football ranking – Austin Ekeler

(Check out Jeff Ratcliffe’s top 100 0.5 PPR rankings.)

In his 100 Questions series, Daniel Kelley questioned whether Ekeler could climb to fantasy football’s Tier 1. Per the FTN half PPR consensus rankings, Ekeler is the 13th overall player, coming in as the RB9. The lowest anyone has him ranked is at RB11 … and remember that is in half PPR. In full PPR rankings, he is closer to the RB6, and consensus has him as the 10th overall player. Ekeler legitimately has top-five upside at the position this season and should be selected anywhere between seventh and 14th in drafts this summer. 

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