Shawn Siegele goes deep into the numbers to answer one of fantasy’s most important questions: Can Austin Ekeler be the Alvin Kamara of 2021?
It’s no secret that the 2021 first round is full of potholes, if not land mines. After Christian McCaffrey and Dalvin Cook, fantasy drafters are faced with difficult choices between Kamara (QB), Derrick Henry (ceiling), Ezekiel Elliott (declining), Jonathan Taylor (bad bye), and Saquon Barkley (injury). As a result, Ekeler is generating buzz that’s elevated his ADP into rarefied air.
Ekeler Has Been a Great Story and a Crazy Fantasy Buy
I have something of a reputation in the community as an Ekeler superfan, and longtime RotoViz readers will be well aware of my infatuation. Like many of you, I love the underdog story, and I love when elite talents are scorned by NFL GMs only to beat the odds.
This is what I wrote about Ekeler in the 2018 Zero RB Candidates Countdown.
Eight RBs finished with more than 30 fantasy points above expectation a season ago, and they tend to be the names you expect. Breakout rookie stars Alvin Kamara (103) and Kareem Hunt (59) finished first and third, while league-winner extraordinaire Todd Gurley came in second at 68. But only one player (Ekeler) managed to accumulate that much surplus value with fewer than 100 opportunities.
The 5-foot-9, 195-pound newcomer from Division II Western State opened eyes at Colorado’s 2017 pro day with a 40-inch vertical and 6.85 three-cone to go with a 4.43 forty. In four college seasons, Ekeler accumulated more than 7,000 yards from scrimmage in just 40 games. He caught 115 passes, found pay dirt 63 times, and twice gained more than 2,000 yards from scrimmage. In 2015 he averaged over 200 yards per game.
Ekeler went on to average 11.8 PPG and finish as an RB2 or better 42% of the time, but that still wasn’t enough for fantasy owners to take a full bite of the apple. The mighty mite went right back on the 2019 Zero RB Candidates List, where I wrote this:
He was even more explosive last year, adding 38 FPOE to his career total and again averaging more than 5.0 yards per carry. Ekeler was one of only nine backs with double-digit FPOE as both a runner and receiver.
If you think that reminds you of anyone, it should. In his must-read series on RB game script and its impact on fantasy performances, Ryan Collinsworth compares him to a top-five RB.
“Ekeler and Kamara are literally the same player, but in different backfield situations. Just look at each player’s career Opps% splits, heat-mapped based on our entire running back sample.”
With Melvin Gordon holding out, Ekeler exploded out of the gates and eventually averaged 19.6 PPG. He offers a reminder that huge RB seasons are available after the first two rounds, and when they occur, the win rates are all the more impressive.
Of course, one of the key tenets of Zero RB drafting is to never chase your favorite RBs above a realistic price. We want exposure to league winners in a Modified Zero RB build, but those players must have truly heroic upsides.
In discussing why fantasy football revolves around Jonathan Taylor in 2021, I explained the recipe for a league-winning season by a first-round RB. We’ll expand on that discussion to determine whether Ekeler should be a priority target in 2021.