It only took us seven weeks to get to this point, but say it with me, Austin Ekeler is back and can be started in fantasy! Not only is he one of the most electric players back, but he is here just in time for the fantasy football playoffs! After seeing his performance last week, is there any concern heading into a Week 13 matchup against the New England Patriots?
Austin Ekeler made his return in Week 12 after missing seven weeks
Having been out since Week 4 when he suffered a severe Grade 2 hamstring injury that detached part of the ligament from the bone, Ekeler was back last week and made his presence felt immediately. The Chargers RB quickly reasserted himself as a multi-dimensional weapon, complementing rookie quarterback Justin Herbert admirably.
While the Los Angeles Chargers lost 27-17 to the Buffalo Bills and dropped to 3-8 on the season, Austin Ekeler stole the show. He rushed 14 times for 44 yards and saw a ridiculous 16 targets, catching 11 for 85 yards, totaling 23.9 fantasy points, and finishing as the RB8.
Not only was it a great return, but his 25 touches were a career-high for Ekeler, who the team clearly did not feel they needed to work back into the system slowly. No sugar-coating the return to action, Ekeler got his share of the rock.
Part of this has to be that the team was without RB Kalen Ballage. Without a second option behind Ekeler that the team could trust, they needed to lean on their starter. Head coach Anthony Lynn had said previously that Ballage had earned the starting role and could be relied on in critical situations. If he were active, I would think they would have taken a more conservative approach.
Austin Ekeler looked like the player we saw at the start of the season
To see him come out of the gate with no hesitation was as reassuring as it gets. For the first three weeks, Ekeler was fantastic and was the RB6 in PPR scoring. Ekeler rushed 47 times for 236 yards (5.0 ypc) while scoring one touchdown in his first three games while catching all 16 of his targets for 142 yards, averaging 19.9 PPR points per game.
The one thing we did not see on Sunday was his efficiency, which he is known for, but that will come with time. On a PPG basis, Ekeler is the RB7 in 2020, rushing 63 times for 292 yards and one touchdown with 28 receptions on 33 targets for 229 yards.
Ekeler’s Consistency Score
Ekeler has been battling injury in 2020. When you look at his 2019 campaign, it ranks tied for fourth in terms of PFN’s Consistency Score metric (6.91) — just below Christian McCaffrey, Ezekiel Elliott, and Dalvin Cook. Ekeler is known for efficiency. You know, players that win fantasy managers championships! Now, let’s be pragmatic and understand that context is everything. Ekeler’s body is in a different condition than it was 12 months prior. The question you must ask is if last week’s performance is indicative of his “on the field” health.
But — there’s always a but — if you believe he’s healthy, pull the trigger starting him and be aware that he’s viable in future contests as well. The potential reward, looking further down the NFL schedule, is a matchup with the Las Vegas Raiders in Week 15. Should you be prosperous enough to make that contest, a ripe Raiders defense towards RBs only elevates Ekeler’s stock that much more.
The most surprising thing of the day for me was that Austin Ekeler had more targets than WR Keenan Allen, who QB Justin Herbert has been hyper-focused on the past five weeks. Since Week 6, Allen has seen less than 11 targets in a game just once (Week 10) and was coming off a 19 target game against the New York Jets in Week 11.
Even once Melvin Gordon made it back onto the field, Austin Ekeler had made his mark as a breakout PPR star in 2019, catching 92 passes for 993 yards, and it looks like he’ll continue to be a focal point in the team’s passing game. If Ekeler’s first game back is any sign, he could be one of the best running backs to close out the season.
Austin Ekeler will be a fantasy RB1 moving forward, starting with New England
Knowing how good he looked on Sunday, it’s hard to imagine Austin Ekeler disappointing fantasy managers in their playoffs. In Week 13, he gets a New England Patriots defense that is difficult but maybe a bit overblown. While they rank 14th in fantasy points allowed to running backs (22.85), the Patriots are the 31st-ranked defense in DVOA, according to Football Outsiders. Motivational factors are running short as well, trekking further into a lost season for the Patriots.
The Patriots allow a sizeable 4.3 yards per carry, which is great since Ekeler is one of the most efficient rushers in the NFL, averaging 4.6 ypc. The one downside is that they allow only 8.14 PPR points per game to running backs, but none have seen a target share like Ekeler has. They have allowed seven different running backs to score at least 10.5 PPR points, which is important because 10.4 is the current PPG for an RB2 in 2020.
Ekeler’s fantasy rest of season schedule is great as well
Moving forward, Ekeler has a great schedule. In Week 14 (16th in DVOA), he gets Atlanta. Though motivated by an interim defensive-minded head coach, the Falcons’ run defense will likely lose its vigor a bit next week after the freshness of Dan Quinn’s firing. Followed by the Las Vegas Raiders in Week 15, who give up the fourth-most points to running backs and are 20th in DVOA. Then for fantasy championships, Austin Ekeler gets the Denver Broncos, who are giving up over 23 points per game to the position.
One last note, when Austin Ekeler sees five or more targets in a game, he averages 20.4 fantasy points per game. Justin Herbert is targeting his running backs on 9.8 passes per game (24%). Ekeler has every chance of being the top-scoring player in the fantasy playoffs. It’s been few and far between to see Herbert and Ekeler on the field at the same time during the 2020 NFL regular season, and the potential balanced offense as a by-product could allow both players to truly shine.
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