At RotoViz, our motto is “seeing is believing.” Our team leverages various internal apps and external resources to make that motto come to fruition. The RB Countdown series will provide you fantasy analysis and outlooks on the top-50 running backs in PPR formats to empower you to make educated decisions on draft day.
Did you know the name of Chargers running back Austin Ekeler this time last year? He had a spectacular showing in training camp and the preseason, ultimately making the team’s 53-man roster. As the season progressed, Ekeler became the change-of-pace back to Melvin Gordon.
Ekeler’s playing time was sporadic over the first four games of the season. He saw a significant increase in snaps played from Week 7 to Week 14 as he became more acclimated to the Chargers offense. His 10.3 yards per reception last season ranked right up there with Alvin Kamara (10.1) and Todd Gurley (10.3).
The rookie out of Western State Colorado University who signed with the Chargers as an undrafted free agent nearly outscored Gordon in PPR formats 81.1 to 91.2 during that time frame, finishing as the RB24.
Ekeler enters this season as the favorite to operate as the Chargers change-of-pace option behind Gordon. He does face competition heading into training camp in the form of Justin Jackson. The Chargers selected him in the seventh round of the 2018 NFL Draft. Jackson finished his career at Northwestern ranked 11th in yards rushing and 10th in yards from scrimmage in college football history. With that in mind, let’s take a look at three things you should know about Ekeler heading into fantasy drafts.
EKELER IS ESSENTIALLY FREE AT HIS CURRENT ADP
Ekeler’s average draft position makes him a particularly attractive target late in best ball drafts. He has standalone fantasy value and will be in a prime position to be a league winner in the Chargers offense if Gordon were to miss extended time give his injury history. Ekeler’s statistical production is eerily similar to Tarik Cohen‘s, but he can land on your fantasy roster at a significantly reduced cost.
WHISENHUNT’S BODY OF WORK SPEAKS FOR ITSELF
Ken Whisenhunt is in his third year as the Chargers offensive coordinator. Gordon has dominated the rushing attempts and receiving targets over the last two seasons under Whisenhunt.
The statistical data over Whisenhunt’s last three seasons as the Chargers OC suggests Gordon could see anywhere from 60 to 70 percent of the rushing attempts. The biggest opportunity for Ekeler to make an impact is in space as a runner or as a receiver out of the backfield. He was one of the most efficient backs in the league last year, averaging 7.3 yards per touch and 1.33 fantasy points per opportunity, which ranked eighth in the NFL among RBs with at least 10 total opportunities last season.
AUSTIN EKELER HAS A GOOD CHANCE TO BREAK OUT
Age is critical when evaluating the RB position. RotoViz writer Blair Andrews has examined the effects of age on NFL production for RBs. Ekeler just turned 23 years old in May, and finished the season as the RB45. However, over the second half of the season, he averaged more than 11 points per game, a pace that would have made him the RB18 if extended over 16 games.
He is at the age at which a breakout is about as likely as bust, but given his performance in his rookie season, he finds himself in an excellent position to break out in 2018.
A RED FLAG
Obviously the biggest thing holding Ekeler back is that he is currently the backup in Los Angeles, and he has solid competition even for that role. Gordon controlled over 70 percent of the RB opportunities and showed no signs of slowing down even as Ekeler started to get more work. It may be difficult for Ekeler to take over much of Gordon’s workload.
To add to that difficulty, the Chargers acquired a skilled pass-catching back in Jackson in the seventh round of the NFL Draft. That might not sound like significant draft capital, but recall that Ekeler was an undrafted free agent. Given what Ekeler did last season, he should be the early favorite to control change-of-pace work, and the next man up if Gordon has to miss time. But should Ekeler falter, Jackson looks like a rookie who could easily outplay his draft pedigree if given the opportunity.
A true breakout for Ekeler may depend on whether he can steal opportunity from the other backs on his team, but at his current ADP, there’s little risk in drafting him. He is barely a top-60 RB in MFL10s.1 However, Ekeler should have enough standalone value to be worth adding at that cost, but we’ve seen his upside when given the opportunity. If he can get more opportunity in 2018, he is in a great position to drastically outperform his ADP.
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- On average he is the 59th RB off the board, but he’s often going later than this. (back)