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Fantasy Football: Just how high is Austin Ekeler's ceiling in 2021?

Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Los Angeles Chargers running back Austin Ekeler (30) runs the ball against the Kansas City Chiefs during the first half at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

We’re in the thick of the NFL offseason and it’s officially time to start fantasy football prep. I’ll be answering the biggest questions heading into the 2021 season. Click here to read the series of questions answered so far.

Some NFL players are simply cooler than others. Maybe it’s natural swagger, perhaps a visor, a bit of turf tape down the arms: “look good, feel good, play good” is a lifestyle choice and one worth pursuing in all walks of life.

In Austin Ekeler’s case, the man is a baller thanks to his high-level on-field skills and (more importantly) his penchant for going wild on the air guitar after finding his way to the end zone. 

The 26-year-old talent exploded on the scene in 2019 with 1,550 total yards and 11 scores before limping his way to another 933 yards and a trio of touchdowns in an injury-shortened 2020 campaign. We don’t have any evidence of Ekeler functioning as anything other than a high-end RB since he was signed as an undrafted free agent prior to 2017.

What follows is a breakdown on just how good Ekeler has been and what to make of him as a fantasy football asset ahead of 2021.

Ekeler has been the definition of a stud fantasy RB over the past two seasons

I’m not a huge fan of full point-per-reception scoring because of the real life disparity in difficulty required to catch the ball vs. gaining 10 rushing or receiving yards. But whatever: It’s the game we play, and receiving-friendly RBs have become the stars of fantasy because of this.

Consider: NFL RBs as a whole averaged 0.64 fantasy points per rush attempt in 2020 compared to 1.58 per target. One target is nearly 2.5 times more valuable in fantasy land than a rush attempt; this is why sub-200 carry backs like Ekeler and Alvin Kamara continue to thrive despite their reduced workload on the ground and each rank as a top-six back in fantasy opportunity score when we look at PFF’s 2021 projections.

All Ekeler has done when positioned as the Chargers starting RB without Melvin Gordon in the picture is ball the hell out (not including Ekeler’s three-snap Week 4 game in 2020 when he was injured):

  • Games as a fantasy football RB1: 7
  • Games as a fantasy football RB2: 13
  • Absolute worst performance: RB31
  • With Herbert: RB14, RB3, RB8, RB21, RB8, RB26, RB16, RB15

This sort of floor is nearly impossible to come by in fantasy land. It simply doesn’t really matter that Ekeler has never gotten 20 carries in a game as long as he continues to function as one of the position’s most productive pass-catchers.

Make no mistake: Ekeler possesses more chops than just about any RB when it comes to excelling when used as a pure receiver. Overall, no RB has averaged more yards per route run than Ekeler when lined up in the slot or out wide since 2017.

Ekeler is PFF’s 25th-highest-graded running back in rushing grade among 115 RBs with at least 100 carries since 2017. He’s first in receiving grade among 121 backs. It’s like Ekeler was built in a laboratory with the sole focus being to create the most fantasy-friendly RB possible for the year 2021.

The one kryptonite: goal line usage. In 2019, Ekeler (7 rush attempts inside the 5-yard line) was severely out-rushed by Gordon (13), while each of Justin Herbert (7), Kalen Ballage (6) and Joshua Kelley (5) saw more goal line usage than Ekeler (2) in 2020.

Not great: We like it when our fantasy players score touchdowns. The good news for Ekeler is that it’s legal for him to score TDs when the ball is located outside of the 5-yard line, and the 2021 edition of the Chargers offense might just be good enough to help grow the overall TD equity pie.

This Chargers offense looks borderline erotic on paper

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