Why Austin Ekeler is being drafted as Top-12 RB: Well, in 2019 Ekeler finished as the RB4 in ESPN PPR scoring leagues. Melvin Gordon started the 2019 season holding out for a new contract, and Ekeler took full advantage of his opportunity. Ekeler has only been in the league for 3 seasons (2017-2019) and his workload has increased in each season. 2019 was a season full of career highs for Ekeler in every major rushing and receiving stat. He got 132 carries (+26 from 2018) for 557 yards rushing (+3 yards from 2018) and 3 touchdowns (equal to 2018), while catching 92 balls (+53 from 2018) for 8 receiving touchdowns (+5 from 2018). Every single one of those stats is a career high, aside from rushing touchdowns where he scored the same amount as 2018 (3). Now having career highs in 2019 is no surprise, he had an increased workload and he maximized on the opportunity. If you owned Ekeler in last season it was a home run, especially in PPR formats he had one of the safest floors by hauling in 92 catches. The 2019 numbers speak for themselves, and looking at them it is clear why he is being projected as an RB1. But I’ll explain why I’m not comfortable taking him in that range.
Why I’m not taking Ekeler as a Top-12 RB: So lets start by talking about the changes on offense for the Chargers. Heading into 2020 the Chargers will be without Phillip Rivers (Now a Colt) and quarterbacked by presumably Tyrod Taylor or rookie Justin Herbert. I won’t sit here and predict which of those quarterbacks is starting week 1 or even the majority of the 2020 season. I believe that will be up in the air, and we’ll have to wait and see how this quarterback competition plays out. But regardless, I think either quarterback is a downgrade from Rivers in terms of leading the offense. Say all you want about Rivers turnover problems in 2019, in fantasy terms I feel more comfortable with him leading my offense. Rivers has always loved to check down to his running backs, and his ability to break down secondaries kept defenses honest while giving Ekeler space in the rushing and short receiving game. So I consider losing Rivers and replacing him with Taylor or Herbert a negative blow to Ekeler’s 2020 fantasy value. On the contrary the Chargers did pay Ekeler following his 2019 campaign, and they let Melvin Gordon walk, which on the surface should give him more opportunity right? Yes, on the surface thats right, but I don’t think losing Gordon directly translates to more work Ekeler. The Chargers still have Justin Jackson on the roster and added rookie back Joshua Kelley (UCLA) in the 4th round of the NFL Draft. I believe Jackson and Kelley split the workload previously held by Melvin Gordon, and Ekeler continues to operate in a similar role. In that role Ekeler has proven to have success, and I think he will continue to be a solid fantasy asset. But with the changes at quarterback, the addition of Joshua Kelley, and career highs in every stat in 2019, I don’t think he repeats or beats his 2019 numbers. I believe there will be negative regression for Ekeler considering these circumstances.
Extra Point: Ekeler will still be a viable fantasy running back, and a strong start most weeks, I am just not expecting him to have another RB1 finish. I have him as a “high-end RB2.” He clearly has RB1 upside, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable taking him over other running backs in the same range. I believe that the running backs listed below have clearer paths to RB1 status. Ekeler is my RB14, he has a safe floor, but I don’t think he will able to reach the ceiling he showed us in 2019.
Who I’m taking ahead of Ekeler: Christian McCaffrey (RB1), Saquon Barkley (RB2), Ezekiel Elliott (RB3), Alvin Kamara (RB4), Dalvin Cook (RB5), Joe Mixon (RB6), Miles Sanders (RB7), Nick Chubb (RB8), Derrick Henry (RB9), Josh Jacobs (RB10), Kenyan Drake (RB11), Aaron Jones (RB12), James Conner (RB13)