In the summer of 2017, Austin Ekeler asked Chargers head coach and longtime running backs expert Anthony Lynn how to make the team. Ekeler was an undrafted free-agent running back out of a Division II school who had signed for $5,000. According to NBC Sports’s Peter King, Lynn gave Ekeler a cliché answer about working hard.
“I didn’t even know who he was,” Lynn said, according to King.
Just over two years later, Lynn is leaning on Ekeler to lead Los Angeles, and so are hundreds of thousands of fantasy football owners. Through three weeks, he has delivered. Ekeler is fifth in the league in yards from scrimmage, tied for second in touchdowns, and is the no. 4 running back in standard scoring and no. 3 in point per reception scoring. But now his fantasy owners have been driven to panic by the return of starting running back Melvin Gordon, who will reportedly end his holdout and return to the Chargers on Thursday. Gordon, who has started 52 games since being selected by the Chargers with the no. 15 pick in 2015, forfeited just over $989,000 of salary by sitting out three games.
Gordon and Dallas running back Ezekiel Elliott both held out of training camp this preseason as both followed the example set by running back Le’Veon Bell, who sat out an entire season in Pittsburgh last year hoping to stay healthy for his impending free agency. But there were major differences between Gordon’s situation and those of the other two backs. Elliott has led the NFL in rushing yards per game each of his NFL seasons and won the rushing yards title twice. Bell’s yards-from-scrimmage figures were historic. Gordon attempted to negotiate like Elliott and Bell but had a far less impressive body of work and a much longer injury history than Elliott. Crucially, Gordon also had a far more capable replacement behind him in Ekeler than Elliott had in rookie Tony Pollard. In 2018, Ekeler had better yards per carry and yards per target marks than Gordon, although both players were in the top 10 and Ekeler had 69 fewer carries and 13 fewer targets. Ekeler was one of 10 qualifying running backs who averaged more than 5.0 yards per carry last year, more than Gordon, Saquon Barkley, and Christian McCaffrey.
Gordon decided to hold out this year and Ekeler literally ran away with the opportunity like James Conner did in Pittsburgh in 2018. Ekeler’s increased workload this year has dropped his efficiency (4.2 yards per carry) but he’s truly separated himself in the receiving game, where he leads all running backs with 69.3 receiving yards per game and 10.9 receiving yards per target. That’s translated into huge fantasy numbers as he currently sits at 25.9 points per game in PPR leagues. The Chargers play the Dolphins this week, so those numbers could easily go up.
But how does Ekeler fit into the Chargers’ plans—and your fantasy lineup—with Gordon back? First, let’s figure out what Ekeler has been doing without Gordon this season. Often, running backs who get 70 percent of a team’s touches like Gordon are replaced by multiple players when they miss time, but Ekeler was able to step into Gordon’s role this month by himself. Last year in the games that Gordon and Ekeler were both healthy, the Chargers played Gordon on 60 to 80 percent of their snaps, while Ekeler was on the field for between 20 and 40 percent of them. Justin Jackson, the team’s third running back last year, did not get more than three carries in a game until Week 12, making it clear the Chargers were using a two-man backfield. This year has been mostly the same, but with Ekeler filling Gordon’s spot (70 percent of snaps) while Jackson has been promoted to Ekeler’s role (30 percent). Snap counts alone don’t tell us what role a player is playing on the field, but the similarities between Ekeler and Gordon through three games are telling.
Gordon (first three games of 2018):
—Rushing: 39 carries for 172 yards and two touchdowns
—Receiving: 17 catches on 24 targets for 144 yards and two touchdowns
—Rushing: 38 carries for 160 yards and two rushing touchdowns
—Receiving: 19 catches on 20 targets for 208 yards and two touchdowns
Not only has Ekeler essentially replaced Gordon’s production on the ground, he’s doing more in the receiving game. On the whole, it’s not a great split for Gordon, who says he deserves a larger contract.
The question for fantasy is whether Ekeler will return to his 2018 role. Let’s say for a moment that he does (this would likely come after Gordon is fully reimmersed in the offense, which may not be until Week 6 against Pittsburgh). Ekeler would still be a solid fantasy player. Last year, he had 958 scrimmage yards and six touchdowns across 14 games, and from Week 1 to Week 16 he averaged 12.1 PPR fantasy points, making him the no. 25 running back. That’s a player worth starting in the flex spot, and obviously a top option in case Gordon, who sat out six games over the past three years with ailments including an MCL injury at the end of last year, misses any more time. That’s not a bad scenario for Ekeler, but it would be devastating for fantasy players who have grown accustomed to him as their best player. Gordon could become a top-10 back on a per-game basis for the rest of the season, though he’ll likely need a couple of weeks to get back up to speed. Reports say he will not play against Miami in Week 4, but Gordon owners who’ve been waiting patiently could plug him in as soon as Week 5 or 6.
But before you try to sell low on Ekeler, there are a few reasons to expect that his role this year might be far bigger than it was last year. Ekeler has excelled in the passing game, and the Chargers may be throwing the ball more often in 2019. The simplest reason for this is their defense is worse. Last year, that side of the ball was one of the team’s core strengths, as the Chargers finished as the eighth-most-efficient defense, according to Football Outsiders. Through three games in 2019, the Chargers rank in the bottom five. That’s a small sample size, but it may not be a fluke—the Chargers have lost star safety Derwin James, backup safety Adrian Phillips, and cornerback Trevor Williams for the season and linebackers Denzel Perryman and Jatavis Brown are already banged up. If the Chargers give up more points in 2019 they’ll need to throw more, and that plays into Ekeler’s skill set slightly more than Gordon’s.
The second and more important reason Ekeler could hang on to at least half of the job is that he’s earned it. There is the assumption that Gordon will automatically take over the starting job simply because he used to have it, but that may not fly for a player in a contract year who was holding out. Gordon will have to win his snaps back, and while taking away Justin Jackson’s role may not be difficult for Gordon, he may have to claw his way to being anything more than an equal member of the backfield. Ekeler may not get enough touches to be a top-five running back while splitting carries, but he could certainly be a top-20 back from here on out while Gordon is top 15, with both having receiving abilities that give each top-3 upside when the other is not playing. Ekeler has earned a larger role by producing as the next man up, and if anyone can appreciate that it will be Lynn, a running backs coach before coming to the Chargers. The coach may not have known who Ekeler was two years ago, but he sure does now.