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Austin Ekeler Will Be NFL's Biggest Breakout Fantasy Football Star of 2021

Maurice Moton@@MoeMotonFeatured ColumnistAugust 6, 2021

Los Angeles Chargers running back Austin Ekeler (30) laughs with teammates before the first half of an NFL football game against the Kansas City Chiefs, Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Reed Hoffmann)
Reed Hoffmann/Associated Press

Los Angeles Chargers running back Austin Ekeler will have a lightning bolt on his helmet, but fantasy football managers may easily mistake that logo for a shining star in a breakout 2021 season. 

After Christian McCaffrey, Alvin Kamara and Dalvin Cook come off the board at the top of fantasy drafts, Ekeler fits into the Tier 2 category among dual-threat running backs. 

According to Fantasy Football Calculator, he has a 1.11 average draft position (ADP), which gives managers with late first-round picks a shot at a high-upside player who has the potential to finish top-three in scoring at his position in points-per-reception leagues.

In 2019, Ekeler racked up 1,550 yards and 11 touchdowns from scrimmage, scoring the fourth-most fantasy points among running backs in PPR settings. During that season, he served as a backup to Melvin Gordon III but put his pass-catching ability on full display, recording 92 receptions for 993 yards and eight touchdowns.

Last year, the Chargers let Gordon walk in free agency and signed Ekeler to a four-year, $24.5 million extension. Hamstring and knee injuries cost Ekeler six games in 2020, though, and he'll look to bounce back during the upcoming campaign.

Despite the Chargers hiring Brandon Staley to replace Anthony Lynn as head coach, Ekeler seems primed to handle a majority of the workload among the club's running backs. That's a strong positive for his fantasy outlook.

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Los Angeles Chargers running back Austin Ekeler
Los Angeles Chargers running back Austin EkelerIcon Sportswire/Getty Images

With Ekeler's contract and past production, he's not going to fall behind second-year running back Joshua Kelley, Justin Jackson (who has battled injuries throughout his three-year career) or rookie sixth-rounder Larry Rountree III. Though Ekeler has never handled the bulk of the Chargers' rushing attempts in his career, expect him to touch the ball 15-20 times per outing because of his prospective role in the passing game.

Quarterback Justin Herbert will have wideouts Keenan Allen and Mike Williams on the perimeter, but he can also look to Ekeler, one of the league's best receivers out of the backfield.

According to Pro Football Focus, Ekeler leads running backs in yards after the catch (1,432) and forced missed tackles (36) on receptions since 2019:

PFF @PFF

Austin Ekeler: 1,432 yards after the catch since 2019 Most in the NFL ⚡ 💪 https://t.co/vdM6pjBMdR

PFF LA Chargers @PFF_Chargers

Austin Ekeler leads all RBs with 36 missed tackles forced on receptions the past two regular seasons. #BoltUp https://t.co/FKPqoq7YpA

The analytics site also noted Ekeler was the only running back to log 10-plus catches in two contests in 2020:

PFF @PFF

Austin Ekeler: only RB w/ 2 games recording 10+ catches in 2020⚡️ https://t.co/swGAIzf420

Staley took note of Ekeler's rise through the ranks and sounds like he trusts him in every facet of the offense.

"He's a complete player. That's why he made it. He was a complete special teams player initially. He's a complete back. He can run the ball. He can run the route tree. He can pass protect. He's an intense competitor. He comes out here and does his job at a high level consistently and that example is not exclusive to running backs."

Ekeler seems confident he'll have a big role and spoke directly to fantasy football managers during a media presser.

"Hey, I'm going to get the ball, I'm going to make things happen," Ekeler said. "They're going to throw me the ball; I'm going to make things happen. If you want to get fantasy points, you better have me on your team. So, that's all I got to say. If I'm healthy, I'm going to score you points." 

Here's the final piece to the puzzle that foreshadows Ekeler's role. Chargers offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi compared his lead back to a few running backs whom he knows well.

"I know that Ekeler has some of the skill set that I'm used to seeing in New Orleans, whether it was Reggie [Bush], Darren Sproles or A.K. [Alvin Kamara]," Lombardi said on a Zoom call with reporters (starts at 9:03).

Two years ago, when Ekeler ranked ninth in scrimmage yards (1,550), he only played 57 percent of the offensive snaps behind Gordon. As the Chargers' featured running back in an every-down role, he could take the field for about two-thirds of the snaps, which may result in a monster season. 

We know about Ekeler's sure hands out of the backfield, but as the clear-cut No. 1 ball-carrier in Los Angeles, he'll likely eclipse his career high in rushing yards (557).

Similar to Kamara in three of his four campaigns, Ekeler could accumulate 700 yards both on the ground and as a receiver even with complementary running backs taking a portion of the snaps. Remember, Kamara recorded those numbers while sharing touches with Mark Ingram II and Latavius Murray.

Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert (left) and running back Austin Ekeler (right)
Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert (left) and running back Austin Ekeler (right)John McCoy/Getty Images

If the comparison between Kamara and Ekeler doesn't encourage you to buy Ekeler stock, take a look at his supporting cast.

Ekeler has a rapport with Herbert, who won 2020 Offensive Rookie of the Year. This offseason, the Chargers revamped their offensive line, adding versatile guard Matt Feiler, All-Pro center Corey Linsley and rookie first-rounder Rashawn Slater, who has turned heads during training camp. If Bryan Bulaga bounces back from an injury-riddled 2020 campaign, Los Angeles' front line will pay dividends on the ground and in the passing game.

Behind an improved offensive line, Ekeler will likely see wider running lanes. On passing downs, Herbert could take advantage of more time in the pocket, finding his dynamic dual-threat running back who has an 81.2 percent catch rate for his career.

For managers concerned with Ekeler's durability, he's worth the risk. The 26-year-old only missed two games in his first three seasons. Yet, the Chargers may feed him 12-14 carries per outing to preserve him for the entire campaign.

With that said, Ekeler doesn't need to log 200-plus carries to become a fantasy football star. Last season, Kamara led all running backs in PPR scoring with just 187 rush attempts. The Saints back had a prominent role in the passing game, recording 83 receptions for 756 yards and five touchdowns. Based on comments from Staley and Lombardi, Ekeler could post similar receiving numbers in 2021.

Ekeler doesn't have Kamara's established resume, but his skill set, potential usage and position on the depth chart could yield comparable fantasy results. With that ceiling, the Chargers running back is a top-eight pick in drafts this year.

     

Fantasy football points and scoring courtesy of FantasyPros.

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