In two of his last three NFL seasons, Austin Ekeler has been a top-five running back for fantasy purposes, including an RB2 finish last season. With the Los Angeles Chargers looking to ascend into Super Bowl challenger territory, their offensive success heavily hinges on Ekeler’s performance this season.
Being surrounded by Justin Herbert, Keenan Allen, and Mike Williams certainly has helped Ekeler catapult near the top of the RB rankings. Nothing has been handed to the undrafted Western Colorado RB thus far, so Ekeler will continue to put in the work – but will the potential of a slight decline in workload limit his RB1 overall potential?
In his third career 16-game season, Ekeler put up monster numbers, rushing for over 900 yards and 12 TDs while hauling in over 600 receiving yards and eight TDs. Even though he ranked 12th in rushing yards and 1st in receiving yards amongst RBs, Ekeler still fell over 300 receiving yards short of his career-high mark (993), set back in really his first breakout season, 2019.
The most important part of Ekeler’s game is his passing game work, and his 94 targets put him third on the Chargers behind Allen and Williams. Having commanded a 15.1% target share (#3 among RBs) and just under 25 routes per game (#2 RB), Ekeler’s role in the passing game is not going anywhere, even with both Allen and Williams still as top targets.
Diving deeper, Ekeler’s 1.65 yards per route run put him at eighth-highest in the NFL amongst RBs. It showcases that Ekeler’s abilities in the passing game are more than just popping out to the flats or check-downs.
When it came to his rushing work, Ekeler typically faced between six and seven players when it came to his rushing work in the box. Due to the offensive scheme that the Chargers employed, he most frequently saw light boxes (six or fewer players) when he carried the ball (41.7%). The Chargers know exactly how to utilize Ekeler in both facets of the offense. Big things look to still be on their way for his upcoming age-27 season.
The worry is that Ekeler’s health concerns could be starting to catch up with him, especially with his heavy dual-purpose workload. 27 years old seems to be one of the last good years, on average, for an RB to produce fantasy-relevant numbers. Ekeler’s time as a top-five fantasy RB could be dwindling.
Couple that with the fourth-round selection of Isaiah Spiller, and you have the makings of a potential thorn in Ekeler’s side – maybe. The Texas A&M prospect was one of the top RB prospects in this year’s weaker draft class. The Chargers have struggled to find that backup option behind Ekeler, Spiller was a logical choice.
If you are looking to utilize Ekeler again this year as one of the top RB options, then grabbing Spiller in your rookie drafts is the ticket. Looking like a safer option than Larry Rountree and Joshua Kelley, Spiller likely is a mid-second rounder in dynasty rookie drafts this year. It’s a high price for a handcuff option.
Should you be concerned for Ekeler’s stock for his 2022-23 season? Sure – the track record for RBs as they hit that age-27 cliff certainly is not a cheery one. But the kind of role that Ekeler has in this offense, combined with the potential for him to earn a bit more rest during games to keep him fresh, paints yet another top-five finish picture for this season.
Unless an injury or role development occurs during training camps, fade Ekeler at your own risk. When it comes time for the season to begin, he likely will cement himself back near or at the top of fantasy boards.
Just be aware of potential issues surrounding guaranteed red zone work and injury flare-ups.
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