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Austin Ekeler is poised for another season of fantasy football dominance in 2023

The Chargers RB remains a top fantasy football option.

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There are two proven methods to achieving fantasy football glory:

  1. Setting aside all previous biases you have toward teams and players, and committing to painstaking research of trends, schemes, and opportunities to get an edge over your competition.
  2. Forgetting to show up to the draft, auto-drafting, and not logging into your account until Week 15.

It’s safe to assume if you’re reading this article, you’re a part of the first group, and the people in the second category drive you nuts.

So let’s assume you’ve heard of the Chargers. You probably know they have a quarterback with an absolute howitzer of an arm, and an elite pairing of highlight reel receivers (albeit when healthy). If you’ve hung around Chargers fans, you’re probably up-to-date on how the running game has been absolutely dismal the last few years. In fact, the last three years, they dropped from 111.5 yards per game in 2020, to 107.9 yards in 2021, and finally crashed to 89.6 yards in 2022.

Given all that information, why on Earth would you want to prioritize Austin Ekeler, the running back who is seeking an extension that neither the Chargers, nor the rest of the league, are willing to give him?

The answer is pretty simple. Austin is equal parts dual-threat fantasy workhorse and an incredibly fun roster addition for a sneaky additional benefit that comes with drafting him.

2022 fantasy performance

For starters, it’s important to know what type of league you’re playing in when diving into this research. If you’re not in a Points Per Reception (PPR) league, then Ekeler comes with more risk as he is more of an elite scat-back than a true workhorse ball carrier.

In PPR leagues, Ekeler stood out above his peers and posted the highest total of all running backs, and the fourth-highest production total across all positions.

However, in standard leagues that didn’t award points for receptions (but do allow receiving yards and touchdowns to running backs), Ekeler ranked fourth among running backs and 16th overall.

Ekeler hasn’t found his way to a 1,000-yard rushing season yet, but he has been a major receiving threat every year he has been with the Chargers. His 107 receptions last season is an elite receiver stat-line, and he happened to get 204 carries for 915 yards and 13 touchdowns on top of that. Ekeler’s receptions, 1,637 total yards and 18 touchdowns gave him a points-per-game average of 21.9 (or 15.6 in standard leagues). That kind of production can carry a team to the fantasy promised land.

Best-case scenario for 2023

Although he had a stellar 2022, many of his touches came from lackluster checkdowns and an uninspiring running game which players have described as having no real coordinated plan or purpose. The addition of offensive coordinator Kellen Moore has the potential of curbing some of Ekeler’s touches, but greatly increasing his efficiency.

The Chargers ran for a total of 1,524 yards last season, whereas Moore’s Cowboys rushed for 2,298. The Cowboys averaged 4.3 yards per carry compared to the Chargers’ 3.8.

The Cowboys main receiving back, Tony Pollard, caught 39 receptions for 371 yards, a 9.5 average. Despite some chunk plays by Ekeler, he averaged only 6.7 yards per reception. The biggest culprit of this discrepancy was Ekeler’s depth of targets. 49.6% of his targets were behind the line of scrimmage, and only two went at least 10 yards downfield! Pollard received 38% of his passes behind the line of scrimmage and 6% went beyond 10 yards. Ekeler should be in line for much more creativity and efficiency, which should help his body hold up through another rigorous campaign.

Pair Kellen Moore’s system with an offensive line that has the potential to be a top unit when healthy and there is reason to believe Ekeler could repeat the success he had in 2022.

Things will go bad this season if...

Austin Ekeler has been campaigning to have a true backfield partner ever since Melvin Gordon left for the Broncos in free agency. He knows he is more efficient when he can grab some air and have another capable back give the defense a different wrinkle to scheme around. Tom Telesco acquiring a complementary back to Ekeler could be devastating for fantasy owners as his current projections are based off of his workhorse-like volume, but it makes too much sense for the Chargers’ success next season. Since Tom doesn’t care about our fantasy football seasons, this is definitely something to keep an eye on.

There is also always potential for injury, but although Ekeler has been a focal point of the Chargers’ offense, he isn’t in the same realm of overuse commonly associated with injury. Historically, the number for running backs to avoid was 370 carries or 400 touches in a season. My first understanding of this rule came in 2006 when Larry Johnson’s 456-touch, 2,199-yard season made him a household name. His career spun in a downward spiral afterwards as he only started 27 games over the next three seasons, followed by Johnson taking just six total carries in the two years after that. More recently, the seemingly unbreakable Derrick Henry finally missed half a season following a 2020 campaign that saw him carry the rock 378 times and catch 19 passes. Christian McCaffrey only played in 10 games across two season after his 2019 campaign, where he collected 403 touches.

Over his six years with the Chargers, Ekeler is averaging exactly 200 touches a season, and his most recent campaigns have been for 311 and 276. Austin is well known amongst his peers as a workout warrior who does everything he can to keep his body right. Even though we view him as a heavy-usage player, there’s no compelling reason to believe Ekeler is an injury concern going into the 2023 season.

Buying or selling PFF’s projection for 2023

Pro Football Focus currently has Ekeler’s line at 881.8 rushing yards, 7.4 rushing touchdowns, 80.4 receptions, 584.4 receiving yards, and 4.1 touchdowns.

In PPR formats, that places him as their first overall running back with 295.3 points or 17.37 points per game.

In standard formats, he drops all the way to the ninth-ranked running back with 214.9 points or 12.64 points per game.

Regardless of what format you compete in, I actually think these numbers are conservative for what Austin will do for the Chargers this year. Ekeler should expect to benefit from a healthy and improved offensive line, along with a scheme that enabled Tony Pollard to rush for over 1,000 yards despite receiving 11 fewer carries than Ekeler, and 38 fewer carries than his backfield partner Ezekiel Elliot. Combining that with a more aggressive downfield approach that will benefit Austin’s depth of targets and open up additional running room underneath, there’s no reason to believe Ekeler can’t continue to thrive even if the Chargers add another back to this unit.

Handcuffs and other Chargers to consider

Joshua Kelley could be an interesting handcuff if Austin were to go down with injury, but injury and consistency have been issues in the past. Isaiah Spiller is extremely intriguing as a grab-and-stash if you have a dynasty league since Ekeler is in a contract year and very likely will be walking in the offseason. Spiller had a ton of hype coming into the league, but practically redshirted his rookie year. His measureables during the combine were very underwhelming, but his college tape shows he can be a powerful and decisive runner. He had LaDainian Tomlinson’s endorsement before the Chargers drafted him, and that’s good enough for me until proven otherwise!

That being said — I am also extremely bullish on Justin Herbert’s trajectory with Moore at the helm. I am hesitant to draft many Chargers receivers as there is likely to be a wide distribution amongst them, although Quentin Johnston is a must-grab in dynasty or keeper leagues since the Chargers will likely move on from Keenan Allen and/or Mike Williams next season. Gerald Everett is also intriguing as Moore loves to scheme to his tight ends, but it is questionable whether or not Everett is at his best as a more gadget-type YAC tight end. In deep leagues, it might not be the worst idea to take a late-round flyer on Donald Parham, as he may end of being the most complete tight end on the Chargers roster and an excellent red-zone threat.

The Austin Ekeler Bonus: Signed Jersey Giveaways

Austin is a very enthusiastic fantasy sports as well, and loves engaging in the community in unique ways. In the past, he has done weekly giveaways for fans that win their weekly matchup with Austin in their lineup. I haven’t seen whether this will continue this year or not, but I am assuming it is as Austin has seemed to really enjoy the engagement it brought in the past.

With all of this in mind, Austin Ekeler is as safe of a fantasy bet as there is amongst the skill position players and a chance to cash in on a free jersey certainly sweetens the pot!