With the devastatingly high price of elite fantasy football running backs, it’s often difficult to identify when the optimal time is to select a running back in one-year leagues. If you’re selecting a running back at the top of the draft, it’s crucial to select a player that has top-5 running back potential. Austin Ekeler is one of these running backs.

The Value of Receiving Production

To finish as a top running back in PPR leagues, you generally need pass-game involvement. In 2019, Christian McCaffrey outscored all running backs by over 150 PPR points. How? By catching 116 passes for over 1,000 yards. Other running backs matched McCaffrey as a rusher, but only two other running backs caught over 80 passes, Austin Ekeler and Alvin Kamara.

Receiving production is so crucial that in 2019, Ekeler outscored Derrick Henry despite rushing 171 fewer times for 983 fewer yards and 13 fewer touchdowns.

Player TM G Att Yds TD Tgt Rec Yds TD FPts FPPG
Austin Ekeler LAC 16 132 557 3 108 92 993 8 313 19.6
Derrick Henry TEN 15 303 1,540 16 24 18 206 2 300.6 20

Yes, Ekeler played an extra game – but this illustrates the outstanding benefit of receiving production in PPR leagues. In 2019, Ekeler and his 132 rushing attempts finished as the RB4 – despite teammate Melvin Gordon stealing 162 rushes for 612 yards and eight touchdowns.

Austin Ekeler’s 2020 Season

At this point, you’re probably wondering, why is he talking about the 2019 season so much and not 2020? Well, let’s talk about what happened in 2020. Below is Ekeler’s 2020 game log.

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In Week 4, Ekeler played just three snaps before hurting his hamstring. If you remove that game, his PPR fantasy points per game jump to 18.1. In 2020, that would be fewer than only Christian McCaffrey, Alvin Kamara, Dalvin Cook, Derrick Henry, and Aaron Jones.

One of the concerns for Ekeler in 2020 was Tyrod Taylor. Not only is scoring potentially hampered by below-average quarterback play, but running quarterbacks like Taylor target running backs at a much lower rate. In his one game with Taylor starting, Ekeler rushed 19 times but was targeted just once.

If you remove that game, Ekeler’s PPR points per game jump to 19.2. Below are his per-game averages during his 8-game healthy stretch with Herbert, the franchise QB for 2021 and beyond.

Att Yds YPC TD Tgt Rec Yds YPT TD FPts
11.9 54.3 4.57 0.13 7.9 6.5 49.8 6.3 0.25 19.2

With Herbert, Ekeler’s 16-game pace was 104 receptions. His high scoring doesn’t even include much touchdown production. During the eight-game stretch, Ekeler scored just three receiving and rushing touchdowns combined. That’s only six touchdowns over a 16-game season.

Ekeler’s receiving production is so valuable that he’s scoring like a fringe top-5 running back while rushing just 12 times per game and scoring very little.

How Should We Treat Austin Ekeler in 2021?

After the consensus top-tier running backs are selected, Jonathan Taylor is the only running back that I would select over Ekeler. Often falling into the second round, Ekeler is being drafted nearly at his floor. We’ve seen him produce like this for two straight seasons. While his pass game involvement could be reduced, it’s hard to imagine that happening on a team that just lost Hunter Henry and lacks depth behind Keenan Allen and Mike Williams.

The other concern for many is rushing attempts. However, I see this as having potential upside. Over the past two years, Ekeler has shown that even with Melvin Gordon and Josh Kelley stealing carries, he’s capable of producing as an RB1. If Ekeler is able to take control of the goal-line carries, he can finish as fantasy football’s top running back.

The roadblocks in front of Ekeler are weak too. Josh Kelley disappointed as a rookie, rushing for just 3.2 yards per carry. While Anthony Lynn didn’t make the adjustment, it was hard to watch Chargers games and believe that Kelley should be stealing any work from Ekeler. On a per-carry basis, Ekeler eviscerated Kelley, averaging 1.4 more yards per rush attempt.

New Chargers’ offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi compared Ekeler to Alvin Kamara, Reggie Bush, and Darren Sproles. Under Lombardi, the Saints did an excellent job of all of these RBs putting running backs in space and maximizing their involvement in the receiving game.

Lombardi also mentioned using an up-tempo offense and aggressiveness on fourth downs, which is an exciting sign for 2021. With objective and rational coaching, the Chargers should be maximizing Ekeler’s touches. If that happens, he’s going to finish as one of fantasy football’s top running backs.