Fantasy Football: 3 Reasons to Be Hesitant About Drafting Austin Ekeler
This one is going to sting.
Austin Ekeler is a favorite amongst the fantasy football players. On top of being a good football player, Ekeler's largest side project is arguably his support of the fantasy football community.
He's breaking up quite a bit of the tension between fantasy football stars and the thousands of everyday people rooting for them to win their office league. This is likely even more well-known in your most challenging fantasy leagues that have several hardcore players.
However, it might be what's causing us to overlook a lot of flaws in his profile entering the 2022 season.
After all, fantasy football usually flips on its head at the running back position year-to-year. Due to injuries and other factors, just 2 of 2020's top-10 running backs by total half-PPR points returned to the top-10 spots in 2021.
Ekeler's unique role makes him a really tough player to project moving forward. I still feel woozy about using a top-five pick and believing his production and availability will stay the exact same as his tremendous 2021 season.
Here are three reasons why.
1. Age, Size, and Injury Concerns
Stating the obvious here: to be a top-10 running back and pay off first-round draft capital, you need to be on the field.
Dating back to 2017, just one running back has played fewer than 75% of his team's games and finished inside the top-10 spots in half-PPR formats. That was Ezekiel Elliott back in 2017, who was 10th after logging only 10 games during his otherwordly prime.
That means Ekeler likely can miss no more than four games and possibly reach the summit.
Last year, Ekeler's 16 starts were the most of his career. The season prior, in his first chance to be "the guy," he played just 10 games after hamstring and knee issues. He dealt with hip, hamstring, and ankle issues all of last season, but he played through them.
While there isn't really a running back that doesn't carry some sort of injury risk, your gut feeling about being trepidatious around Ekeler or Christian McCaffrey is correct. Per a 2018 study from Football Outsiders, smaller running backs get hurt more often. Kind of a no-brainer, right?
For visibility purposes, not a ton of smaller running backs have been a perennial top-10 back in half-PPR formats. A look back at the past five years says they just haven't been consistent league-winners recently:
Note: This table is sortable by any category. The default sortation is to body mass index (BMI).
All four running backs who have at least three top-10 seasons in the last five years also have a BMI over 30. This upcoming season would be Ekeler's third in the past five years, bucking the trend.
Even the brilliant Christian McCaffrey -- with a much larger role than Ekeler both rushing and receiving -- has managed just two top-10 seasons due to injury. McCaffrey was also the only RB1 in this five-year stretch with a BMI below 30.
No overall RB1 has been older than 26 in the past five years, either. Ekeler will play his age-27 season in 2022.
2. Outperformance of Opportunity in 2021
Ekeler's 2021 opportunity share, when factoring in his size, seems unfathomable.
Of course, Ekeler is uniquely established as a pass-catching back in what will be a pass-first Chargers offense. He tied Najee Harris for the league lead in targets at the position (94) last season.
In fact, Ekeler has never eclipsed 20 carries in a single NFL game five years into his career. He's just not asked to carry the ball, and we can point back to that weight study as to why.
The single thing in Ekeler's profile that feels unsustainable is that he finished fifth in rushing touchdowns (12) while posting just 911 yards on 206 rushing attempts. In fact, those numbers almost mirror those of fantasy puzzle Damien Harris:
(Minimum of 100)
You can see that Joe Mixon scored just one more tuddie on 86 additional carries. Ekeler's scoring rate is just not sustainable -- normally.
As a result, according to PFF's Expected Fantasy Points metric based on the average production per opportunity in the NFL, Ekeler was one of 2021's greatest overachievers overall at the running back position:
50%+ of Snaps
Now, just because a player is on this list doesn't mean they'll definitely come crashing down the following season. Derrick Henry is present every single year because of his ability to rip off long scores, and Jonathan Taylor had a few of those in 2021 as well.
Good football players outperform expected fantasy points consistently because they're good, but Ekeler's outperformance came in the touchdown department, and that's simply much more a product of timing and opportunity:
Ekeler wasn't a total flash in the pan. He was on an elite offense, had a phenomenal role to score touchdowns, and was able to stay healthy all season.
You'll need all three of those things to happen again in 2022 to pay off a top-five pick, though, unless Ekeler starts blasting off chunk yardage plays one year later into his career.
3. Legitimate Competition in Town
When the Bolts drafted Joshua Kelley as a bigger back in 2020, the staff was hoping to add Ekeler's complement. Considering Kelley's 30.3% rushing success rate last year, it just hasn't panned out.
They went back to the well this year and added Isaiah Spiller from Texas A&M. Spiller will be familiar with the part-time role he'll have with Ekeler right away. In College Station last season, Spiller saw just 176 carries compared to 133 for flashy speedster Devon Achane.
He still posted 5.63 yards per carry in those limited touches. Spiller also had a 9.5% target share overall in 2021, so he's not totally inept when it comes to catching passes out of the backfield. More importantly, the 215-pound bruiser delivered 25 touchdowns across three seasons -- and the final two were split with Achane. He's a bigger back than Ekeler with a nose for the endzone.
His stock fell because his overall production just wasn't very good splitting work. He also had a less-than-ideal stint at the combine that was marred by injury. Still, this is a player many scouts are high on when it comes to contributing at the NFL level.
Justin Jackson's replacement stint in 2022 was also pretty solid, so it's not like only Ekeler can thrive in this offense. Jackson took over in the second half in Week 15 when Ekeler was injured against Kansas City, and he got the full workload in Week 16 at Houston after Ek's ankle injury. Jackson was every bit of Ekeler -- if not better:
Does this mean Spiller and/or Jackson are going to unseat Ekeler as the lead guy? Not at all. Ekeler was still PFF's 20th-ranked running back for a reason. He's an above-average NFL running back.
But, when drafting in the top five of your fantasy football draft, you ideally want to steer clear of adept backfield alternatives.
If we're just talking about talent, Nick Chubb wouldn't be going at the end of the first round, but Kareem Hunt and D'Ernest Johnson all but guarantee he's not going to lead the running back position in snap share. Why would Cleveland run him into the ground with capable alternatives?
That's the sort of dynamic the Chargers have been missing since Melvin Gordon departed. Ekeler hasn't really had a teammate capable of spelling him. If Jackson continues to develop and perform as he did late last year, or if Spiller ends up being a solid player, those are two additional barriers to production that Ekeler didn't face most of last season.
It's incredibly difficult to build a case against Austin Ekeler because his floor is so high.
Because of his dual-threat ability, a bulk of his opportunities come with the additional value a target provides. As a result, if you need 10 half-PPR fantasy points on a given weekend, Ekeler and Christian McCaffrey would be two of the best bets in the league.
But as pointed out, Ekeler lacks the ideal size for a traditional featured back type of role in the NFL. He didn't need to be that for an offense that had a 61% situational-neutral pass rate (fourth-highest in the NFL), and Ekeler's 4.1 receiving touchdowns over expectation went a long way to mask the pain of that approach limiting his rushing work.
However, does that change in 2022? The Chargers' defensive additions might force them into a positive script more often. Last season, they had just a 52% pass rate with at least a seven-point lead. Unless an aging Ekeler receives unprecedented work on the ground, the bulk of those extra carries might go to Justin Jackson or Isaiah Spiller.
His scoring role is also poor compared to the standard at the top of fantasy drafts right now. Last season, Derrick Henry saw 87.8% of the Titans' red-zone carries in games he played. Jonathan Taylor was at 80.8% for the Colts, and Joe Mixon was at 75.4% for the Bengals. Austin Ekeler was at 48.0%. It's not even the same galaxy.
If you want to play it safe and get something out of your top-three pick, feel free to select Ekeler. But, if you're looking to swing for the fences and find the RB1, you have to look elsewhere. The odds that Ekeler -- another year older with an injury history -- records another 20-touchdown season with increased backfield competition are incredibly long.