And in Week 10, Ekeler exploded, putting on a Woodhead-in-his-prime-type performance: 42 yards rushing, 77 yards receiving to go along with two receiving touchdowns.
So the question is, is this unheralded, undrafted player the real deal or just one of those one-week shooting stars we've seen so often in fantasy football, leaving a brilliant impression but never to be seen again?
AUSTIN 3:16 SAYS ...
A Danger Zone alumn, it was fun learning about Ekeler's journey from small town stud to surprising sleeper.
Growing up in Eaton, CO, a tiny town with a sub-5K population, Ekeler didn't get a lot of looks from major programs and ended up at Division II Western State Colorado.
He posted big numbers in games, but it was his performance at University of Colorado's pro day that really turned heads. The explosive Ekeler got on the NFL radars after posting a 4.43 40-yard-dash time to go along with a 40.5-inch vertical. Despite the eye-popping pro day numbers his diminutive size (5-foot-10, 200 pounds) and unknown background led him to going undrafted. He eventually signed with the Chargers.
BAH GAWD, IT'S AUSTIN!
Ekeler's weekly volatility and lack of name value scared off most from adding him in the past, but I think that changes this week after an impressive real-life and fantasy day versus the terrifyingly good Jags defense.
So after popping up here and there with long touchdowns and popping off versus Jacksonville to the tune of two touchdowns, I sat down and popped in his tape. (Sidebar: what a funny, dated reference people still universally understand considering no one actually uses videotape, let alone "popping in" said tape into a player. Anyways, back to the column.)
Watching Ek run is like watching lightning on three cups of coffee. It's all suddenness and burst. And speaking of fast, the thing I really liked was his how quick he was to read gaps and blocks.
The play above is only one highlight of what is a season-long trend. Per Next Gen Stats, Ekeler has averaged an incredibly impressive 5.21 yards after a defender closes within one yard (YGAC). It's a small sample size given his 25 carries on the season but to put his YGAC number in perspective, Alvin Kamara has a 4.69 YGAC number and Kareem Hunt is posting a 4.68 YGAC.
(Remember, this YGAC number is a great measure of a running back's elusiveness as explained in greater detail here.)
WHAT? ... WHAT? ... WHAT? ...
So elusiveness is one thing for a small, quick back but the guy plays much stronger than you would expect. Just watching Ekeler play, you would never know he was barely pushing two bills because he DEFINITELY does not get tackled like a small guy.
Scanning every touch on the season, what I found was that it was extremely rare to see a linebacker or safety line up a big hit as Ekeler uses his speed and shiftiness to not only break tackles but to gain positive yards after contact as well.
Here's the thing, I knew I was seeing a lot of broken tackles and positive yards after contact but when I saw the actual number ... bruh. Ekeler and his 3.0 yards after contact per carry is just outrageous. That's better than Jordan Howard, Marshawn Lynch and LeGarrette Blount who are all in the top 10 in this category. Those are big, powerful punishing running backs. So say whatever the hell you want about small sample size but Ekeler's all of 200 pounds!
And this ability to gain positive yards in adverse conditions is an important quality of any quality running back. You have to keep the offense in positive down and distance. Negative runs severely hurt script.
GIVE ME A HELL YEAH
Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know what you're thinking. "None of this matters for fantasy if he can't get on the field!"
And yes, it's true, Ek's snap share is awfully precarious. He's been playing on about 30 percent of the team's offensive snaps the last three games. Melvin Gordon is clearly the bell cow, dominating the backfield touches on a weekly basis.
But here's the thing. Ekeler's role is increasing, and at a significant rate.
Through Week 6, Ekeler played largely on special teams, barely touching the field when the Chargers were on offense. But starting in Week 7, Ekeler got integrated into the offense in a more meaningful way playing about 30 percent of the team's offensive snaps in every game since. It's resulting into a dip in Gordon's playing time.
But like we are seeing in New England's backfield, it could be worth it to at least add and possibly play multiple backs on the same team. Because as a credit to offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, he's found a way to use Ekeler all over the field and not just as a straight backup to Gordon.
It's entirely possible Ekeler finds work not only as a running back but also as a receiver given his usage in the slot and out wide, areas where he has proven to be exceptional in as well.
According to Next Gen Stats, Ekeler is averaging 5.58 yards of separation from the nearest defender at time of target. It's the second-highest number in the NFL among running backs with at least 20 targets.
What does it mean? Well, whether he's slipping out of the backfield or out running a route as a receiver, he is largely wide open. He's becoming a reliable check-down target for Philip Rivers. And oh by the way, his 3.58 yards after catch average is in line with what Kareem Hunt (3.75 YAC) and Chris Thompson (3.79 YAC) are doing. So not only is he widely available for Rivers to throw to, Ekeler is gaining plenty of yards after the catch as we saw on this great catch-and-run touchdown versus the Jags.
AND THAT'S THE BOTTOM LINE ...
The Chargers in real life seem to find new and creative ways to suffer brutal losses and the frustrations associated with that cloud what many managers feel about this offense from a fantasy perspective.
If we're focusing strictly on the fake game, the Chargers could be a team that could be a pretty high-scoring unit throughout the back half.
From a talent standpoint, the roster is very good. We know Rivers is going to sling it, for better or worse. Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, Hunter Henry as your main pass-catching corps is well above average. We've talked extensively about the home run ability of Ekeler but Travis Benjamin and Tyrell Williams can make big plays as well. Melvin Gordon can keep the chains moving.
Just as enticing is the schedule. The Chargers over the next three weeks have Buffalo, Dallas and Cleveland. The Bills have been dunked on defensively since they traded Marcell Dareus. The Cowboys are likely to be without Sean Lee and in the three games Lee has missed fully or partially this season, Dallas has given up more than 32 points per game. Cleveland is giving up nearly 27 points per game on the season, the third-most in the NFL.
So let me make this clear: YOU WANT A PIECE OF THIS OFFENSE MOVING FORWARD.
And the great thing is, the public perception that the Chargers are bad will help you make these moves.
As for Ekeler himself, he is a high variance player but someone you absolutely need to roster. He has stand-alone value as a volatile player that you can manage your roster around if you are so inclined. But as a stash, should something happen to Melvin Gordon, the upside is enticing as well. He doesn't profile as a traditional handcuff given his size but it's fair to assume his snap share would increase in the case of a Gordon injury.