I usually try and come up with witty and/or euphonious titles for my pieces. Then I open the door, wine and dine, and provide copious amounts of foreplay for my loyal and content-thirsty audience. Today, though, it’s all about the business, so no fooling around.
FADE AUSTIN EKELER!
Ekeler is 25 years old, 5′ 10″, and 200 pounds. He played his college ball at Western State Colorado, a Division II school. Despite his 4.48 40-yard dash and eye-popping burst and agility scores……
…..the small school bias allowed the Chargers to sign him as an undrafted free agent.
So far in his brief Chargers career, he has a career rushing average of 4.8 yards and 10.8 yards per reception over 46 games, 11 of which he started. The rushing efficiency has been amazing, but he’s never received more than 132 carries in a season. Ekeler has made most of his hay in the passing game, where he garnered 108 targets last season and hauled in 92 passes.
According to FantasyPros ADP, Ekeker is being selected as the 26th overall player and 13th running back. There are some who believe he’s a top 10 overall player. I get it. Melvin Gordon is gone, so the backfield should be his. In addition, do you remember what he did against the Jaguars last season? 8 rushes for 101 yards with 4 receptions for 112 yards. Since 1950, there have only been 11 other instances in which a running back dub-dubbed like that.
- 2002 Priest Holmes
- 2001 Priest Holmes
- 2006 Steven Jackson
- 2009 Chris Johnson
- 2018 Christian McCaffrey
- 2017 Todd Gurley
- 2011 Arian Foster
- 2007 Joseph Addai
- 2007 Brian Westbrook
- 2007 Pierre Thomas
- 2006 Brian Westbrook
That’s an impressive list, so I get the excitement for Ekeler this season. But, but, but…..
Time to break it down.
The Chargers offense is going to look completely different than last year’s version. Philip Rivers has taken his talents to Indianapolis, so Tyrod Taylor and rookie Justin Herbert will be guiding the ship.
In 14 years as a starter, Rivers threw to the running back position 120 times or more in eight of those seasons. Last season, he threw to running backs 174 times, in a year the Chargers were 6th in passing percentage. The run/pass ratio was 366 runs and 597 passes for a 0.61 number.
In three years as a starter in Buffalo, Tyrod Taylor never threw to the running backs more than 120 times in a single season. In fact, LeSean McCoy only received 50, 57, and 77 targets over that span. Some of that can be attributed to Taylor’s rushing acumen, as he would rush for 90 to 100 times per season, but it was probably due more to the structural offensive philosophy, as the Bills were 32nd, 31st, and 31st in passing percentage. In 2016, when now Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn was the offensive coordinator for the Bills, the run/pass ratio was 492 runs and 474 passes for a 1.03 number.
What if Justin Herbert starts? Rookie quarterbacks check down to the running back and tight end, right? Well….here’s an excerpt from Herbert’s draft profile over at The Draft Network:
“He is always a threat to the defense as a runner. He has good mobility in and out of the pocket and will extend plays with his legs when plays break down.”
That sounds a lot like Tyrod and doesn’t inspire confidence that he will be checking it down to the running backs.
How many carries is Ekeler going to receive? The projections have him in the 150 range, which is 9 carries per game if he plays all 16 games. Last season when Melvin Gordon missed time, Ekeler carried the ball 8, 7, 4, and 9 times. Can he maintain his hyper-efficiency? History usually isn’t kind in this respect. Are there outliers? For sure. Below is a list of all the players in the history of the NFL who have had a season in which they scored at least 200 PPR points with between 90 and 200 rushing attempts and at least 90 targets:
- 2018 Alvin Kamara
- 1995 Adrian Murrell
- 2003 Michael Pittman
- 2000 Michael Pittman
- 2002 Charlie Garner
- 1994 Edgar Bennett
- 1993 Herschel Walker
- 2019 Alvin Kamara
- 2001 Tiki Barber
- 2001 Duce Staley
- 2001 Warrick Dunn
- 2007 Reggie Bush
- 2019 Austin Ekeler
- 2017 Alvin Kamara
- 1993 Terry Kirby
- 2017 Christian McCaffrey
- 1996 Larry Centers
- 1994 Larry Centers
- 2018 Tarik Cohen
- 2018 James White
That’s it. In the history of the game. Shout out to Larry Centers!!!
Anyways, Alvin Kamara and James White are the two I want to focus on. Kamara is the likely comp for the bullish case for Ekeler. All I have to say to that is a Drew Brees/Sean Payton-led offense versus an Anthony Lynn/Shane Steichen/Tyrod Taylor triumvirate. Remember the running back target numbers I was throwing around earlier? In 14 seasons with the Saints, Brees targeted the running backs over 120 times in 13 of those seasons! Plus, the Saints are a much, much, much more explosive offense than the Chargers. Uh, yeah.
The James White comparison could be more apt for Ekeler. While he will get more carries than White and the offense will be more consistent from a scheme point of view, the targets should be similar. Here’s the thing, though. The draft price for Ekeler is more in the Kamara area than the White lounge, as Ekeler requires a 2nd to 3rd round pick, while White is a 7th or 8th rounder. Last season, White finished as the 18th running back with around 200 PPR points.
I’d also be worried about Joshua Kelley getting more than his fair share. He may even receive most of the goal-line carries. Kelley is 5′ 11″ 212 pounds and has impressive physcial measureables: 4.49 40-yard dash with a 69th percentile agility score according to PlayerProfiler. Pro Football Focus ranked the Chargers as “the ninth-best circumstance” for a rookie running back to enter.
I love Ekeler as a player and in PPR leagues he’s great. My issues are that the expectations and price to acquire are for ceiling outcomes. I see too much downside risk to feel comfortable utilizing a top pick on him.