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Austin Ekeler had one of the most valuable receiving seasons for a RB ever

NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at Jacksonville Jaguars Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

No running back had more value per pass attempt towards them than Mark Ingram of the Baltimore Ravens. Ingram had a DVOA of 66.6% on throws his way, which was first by a huge stretch:

Kyle Juszczyk was second at 47.7%.

And Austin Ekeler was third at 39.1%.

But there is a key difference between those three: Ingram and Juszczk had 54 targets combined. Ekeler had 108 targets on his own. With 92 receptions vs only 16 incompletions (insane that this wasn’t an even bigger story), Ekeler finished with 993 yards and eight touchdowns. That ended with Ekeler as the most valuable receiver from the backfield on a minimum of anything more than 30 targets, with Christian McCaffrey coming in just behind him at 34.5%.

McCaffrey was targeted 143 times and had more DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement) than second-place Ekeler.

What is DVOA and Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement?

One place where Ekeler stands above McCaffrey and every other back though: yards per target. Ekeler’s high catch rate of 85.2% means that nearly every target counted for some yards, and therefore his Y/T shot up to 9.2 by season’s end. That placed Ekeler 25th overall and first among running backs in 2019. Consider that Michael Thomas finished with 9.3 Y/T, Travis Kelce was at 9, and Julio Jones was at 8.9.

You can’t straightline compare the value of any two players across the league and it is especially sketchy territory to do so when comparing a running back (who may not actually be a running back, as Ekeler was 35th in DVOA and DYAR as a runner last season) to tight ends and receivers. But it’s indisputable that a pass to Ekeler was very valuable to the Chargers last season.

And arguably as valuable as some tosses to players who have much more sterling reputations as weapons.

Ekeler’s 9.2 yards per target is also not just the best mark of any back this season by a considerable margin, it is also the biggest we’ve seen from any running back in the last decade, at least. From an running back in this century who has been targeted at least 60 times, Ekeler’s 9.2 Y/T is the highest. The only other back above 8.57 (2011 Arian Foster in third place) is Todd Gurley, who posted a 9.06 Y/T during his 2017 “Can a RB win MVP again?” campaign.

Foster caught two touchdowns in 2011, Gurley caught six in 2017. Ekeler caught eight last season. As far as receiving seasons by running backs go, Ekeler seems to have surpassed the campaign put up by Alvin Kamara in 2017 (81 catches, 826 yards, 5 TD, lower DYAR and DVOA), but with far less hype. The same seems to be accurate with regards to 2017 Gurley and even modern McCaffrey.

The difference being that they were also very valuable as runners in those seasons, whereas Ekeler averaged just six carries per game after Week 4 with the return of Melvin Gordon. He didn’t score on the ground after Gordon’s return, though his three rushing touchdowns in the first four games may indicate that he could have.

With Ekeler’s time as a restricted free agent coming soon, the question becomes, “What’s next?” and the answer could be as simple as “We don’t know” but that depends on a number of factors. Like who LA’s quarterback will be. And if the game has changed enough for historical facts to be tossed out the window. Historically speaking, seasons like this have not been repeatable.

Kamara has seen his seasons get progressively less valuable over the last two years; he’s caught 81 passes in all three campaigns, but his yards on those has dropped considerably.

Gurley went from 64/788 to 59/580 to 31/207.

Foster’s 2011 season was followed up by 40/217 as a receiver and then an injury derailed him in 2013. Charlie Garner went from 91/941 in Oakland’s 2002 Super Bowl run and fell to 48/386 the next season, though he was 31 at the time. David Johnson had 80/879 in 2016 then missed virtually all of 2017 and hasn’t been the same. Le’Veon Bell went from 83/854 to 24/136 in an injury-shortened season, to 75/616 and 85/655 when he returned. He didn’t lose that ability, but he did gain 200 fewer yards on basically the same number of catches. Tarik Cohen went from 71/725 to 79/456, utterly destroying his value per reception; Cohen was ranked 46th in DYAR and 44th in DVOA as a receiver last season.

McCaffrey hasn’t slipped, but he has touched the ball 729 times in the last two seasons, and that does always give me pause based on the history of getting 400 touches in a year.

But Ekeler’s season as a receiver in 2019 was exceptional in more ways than many may first expect, even if they knew he was pretty valuable in that role. The Chargers — and any team considering signing Ekeler to a “long-term” deal (in quotes because he’s still technically a running back, which hurts his overall value) — must now decide how repeatable those numbers were, what his ceiling is taking handoffs from the QB, and what that’s worth.