Austin Ekeler is a Great Fantasy Football Pick, Even if Melvin Gordon Re-Signs With the Chargers

SEATTLE, WASHINGTON - NOVEMBER 04:  Austin Ekeler #30 of the Los Angeles Chargers runs with the ball in the third quarter against the Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Field on November 04, 2018 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Los Angeles Chargers v Seattle Seahawks | Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

By now it's no secret that there's a real chance we've seen Melvin Gordon play his final game as a Charger. Heading into the final year of his contract, Gordon isn't showing up to training camp, and has requested a trade as the sides remain far apart on a deal. And at this point, it sounds like the Chargers are going to play hardball.

This obviously has the potential to be a big blow to Gordon's fantasy football value, whether he holds out or is traded to a less fantasy-friendly situation. But the really intriguing piece for fantasy football players is what this means for Austin Ekeler.

Ekeler played in 14 games as a rookie, and he turned in a surprising finish as the 26th-ranked running back in point-per-reception (PPR) leagues. That despite playing second-fiddle for most of the season to Gordon, who finished eighth.

It almost goes without saying that Ekeler will offer plenty of upside if Gordon isn't around this season, but Ekeler is going late enough in drafts that he's got the potential to be a great pick even if Gordon does play. He got in a few games sans Gordon last year, but 11-of-his-14 games were played with Gordon active. He still impressed in that sample, averaging 12.0 fantasy points per game compared to 12.8 without Gordon. Even at that with-Gordon pace over his full 14 games, he would have finished at that same RB26 rank. And if he were healthy for 16 games, he was on pace for an RB19 finish.

His draft position does not come close to capturing that, though. In the month before the first news of a potential Gordon holdout dropped, Ekeler had an average draft position (ADP) of 103, going as the 48th running back off the board, on average. You'll take a top-30 finish out of a ninth-round running back any day, especially when he's already flashed top-20 upside.

Naturally, that ADP has climbed with Gordon's contract situation. But since the first reports of a potential holdout, he's still only going as the 44th running back off the board. If we narrow our view to the last week, with the holdout looking more likely, Ekeler is going at RB39. Even if Gordon plays, a similar season to his 2018 rookie campaign would leave Ekeler as a great value pick.

If Gordon doesn't play, though? Ekeler should soar up the running back ranks.

His fantasy production may not have taken much of a jump without Gordon, but his workload absolutely did -- and workload is far and away our biggest concern for running backs.

In three Gordon-less games, Ekeler average 6.67 targets and 13.33 rush attempts per game. For context, last season only eight running backs averaged at least 20.0 opportunities (carries plus targets) per game over the season. And if we weigh those opportunities to reflect the fact that targets tend to generate more fantasy points than rush attempts do, Ekeler's work in that sample puts him up in Alvin Kamara territory (12.9 carries and 7.0 targets per game). He also played 79 percent of the team's offensive snaps when Gordon was out, which is actually more than Gordon's 71 percent snap share prior to his multi-game absence starting in Week 13.

There are, of course, a couple of caveats with Ekeler. He's not suddenly a lock to be Kamara.

First, he's unlikely to dominate the snaps the way we saw in the sample over a full season. He played over 90 percent of the snaps in his first game without Gordon, but once they had some time to game plan for Gordon's absence, Ekeler's snap share dropped to 73 percent.

Second, we should also be prepared for a significant drop in efficiency. Ekeler finished 10th in fantasy points per opportunity among the 59 backs with at least 100 opportunities last year, and efficiency is a notoriously high-variance and essentially random season-to-season.

Even if we want to completely write off efficiency though, he ranked 43rd in weighted opportunities (accounting for the increased value of a target) per game last season -- a rank he's barely being drafted ahead of right now.

Even as his draft price continues to climb, there doesn't look to be a ton of risk involved in taking Ekeler. You'll be getting a guy heading into his second NFL season that has already proven to be a solid value at the spot he's being selected, even if we don't see him make any improvements as a player.

That means the upside is all gravy. Even if Gordon plays a full 16 games for L.A. (which doesn't look likely at this point), any strides Ekeler has made since his rookie year could earn him an even bigger workload.

And if Gordon doesn't end up wearing powder blue this year? It wouldn't come as any surprise for Ekeler to finish as a top-12 fantasy producer at the position. That's not the kind of upside you're usually going to find in the sixth or seventh round of your drafts.

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