It's easy to find running backs to be excited about heading into 2021 fantasy football. Last season offered some historic performances, and we'll soon see the return of all-world talents Christian McCaffrey and Saquon Barkley. There's also the emerging class of 2020 running backs and a few intriguing incoming rookies.
Even so, there's no reason for Austin Ekeler to be consistently left out of the discussion of fantasy's best backs. Sure, he's generally known as a receiving back, and that type of player hasn't often been considered a first-round fantasy option. But Alvin Kamara has paved the way for elite receiving backs to depend on the passing game in recent seasons, and Ekeler is ready to follow the same path.
Ekeler has gotten some hype in the past month, pumping his ADP from the early second round into the late first. But that's still not high enough.
As the fifth-best fantasy back, Ekeler is deserving of the fifth overall pick in 2021 fantasy football drafts. Here's why anyone who gets a chance to draft Ekeler after that point is getting a massive value.
History of Success
The Chargers signed Ekeler as an undrafted rookie in 2017 from Western Colorado. He posted a respectable 74.6 overall PFF grade on 195 snaps as a rookie, leading to a larger role in 2018. Splitting time with Melvin Gordon III in his second season, Ekeler posted a RB25 performance.
Ekeler progressed to even more work in both the pass game and as a runner in 2019. This was his best season in terms of both PFF grade and fantasy finish. He was RB4 on the season and led all running backs in fantasy points per snap at 0.52. Gordon missed the first four games of the season, and the increased workload led to a massive 109 points for Ekeler in that time.
Ekeler wasn’t expected to maintain the same level of play in 2020 despite Gordon leaving in free agency. He was drafted as the RB10 despite finishing higher the previous season, even with an increase in opportunities looming.
The fourth-year back started the season strong as the RB7 over the first three weeks but suffered a serious hamstring injury and a hyperextended knee early in the fourth game. He returned in Week 12 but needed time to get back to form, still finishing as the RB6 over the last six weeks.
Ekeler’s career PFF receiving grade of 94.3 is the highest for any running back from 2017-2020, and his 2.29 yards per route run and 16 receiving touchdowns also led all running backs in that time. He has a top-20 rushing grade over the past four seasons and the sixth-best overall grade.
He has quite simply become one of the best running backs in the NFL, with a history of fantasy success that for some reason is still being a bit overlooked.