Fantasy Football’s Best Kept Secret: Joshua Kelley
Rookie running backs are a staple of fantasy football leagues everywhere, especially during the summer. Dynasty owners know that finding the rookies that aren’t plastered all over every website in the industry is a crucial skill to learn. Players like Alvin Kamara, Phillip Lindsay and Devin Singletary became very relevant redraft picks, even though they weren’t on everyone’s radar on draft day. The running back position is the one spot that you don’t have to have an insanely talented player line up on Sunday to still give you fantasy production. Volume is king, as we know. Talent means little without opportunity, but in the right scenarios under the right coaching staff, a talented player will demand opportunity too. It’s a little early to be overreacting to ADP for redraft leagues of course, but it’s still worth noting and comparing with rankings in the industry to see if anyone stands out. One player that’s already rising up draft boards is Ke’Shawn Vaughn, for obvious reasons. There’s a hole in Tampa Bay’s backfield, the GOAT took over behind center, and Bruce Arians made David Johnson a fantasy star.
Thankfully, Vaughn isn’t the only player from this rookie class that deserves attention. Joshua Kelley was selected in the fourth round by the Chargers, and the casual football fan wouldn’t think that means too much since round three is usually the cutoff for significant capital at this position. I don’t disagree with that considering it’s data-driven, but this particular selection is more intriguing than most. Let’s take a look at why Kelley is one of my favorite sleepers for 2020, and why he should be on the radar of every person who considers themselves a member of the #FootClan.
Kelley was a fourth-round pick for a reason; I’m not going to pretend he’s Saquon Barkley. He was a productive back who had a strong combine, but he won’t blow anyone away. Thankfully, he doesn’t need to. Kelley just needs to do enough to be handed the early-down role and goal-line work, and he will be a STEAL in your fantasy drafts. In two full seasons at UCLA, Kelley notched 2,303 yards on 454 attempts and commanded a respectable 6.7% target share. His 5.07 YPC was strong, but not elite. In 2018, he rushed for 1,243 yards which were good enough for top-10 in UCLA history. He was eighth in the entire NCAA in rushing yards per game that year, and he ended his career as a top fifteen rusher in school history. His combine metrics were strong, he had a near-identical 40 time to Melvin Gordon, exceeded Gordon’s totals on the bench press and in the speed score department, but lagged behind him when it came to Gordon’s signature quick burst that made him a first-round pick. Kelley isn’t the player Gordon was by any means, but he’s surprisingly impressive from an athletic standpoint. Melvin was in consideration as a top fifteen pick, so it’s fair to expect Kelley to have a less impressive profile. The Chargers wanted a discount since Ekeler is the focal point of their offense, and they snagged a player that many said could go as early as round two in the 2019 NFL draft. Kelley fell down the board, and the Chargers drafted him and passed on a lot of other talented players that tumbled. He’s not an elite talent or athlete, but he’s above average in both and has an opportunity to play immediately. Opportunity is more important than talent when it comes to redraft leagues.
Austin Ekeler is an absolute beast. I just have to get that out of the way. I love Ekeler as a dynasty asset, and I think he will have no problem producing solid numbers given his talent and use in their passing game. My interest in Kelley stems more from the departure of Melvin Gordon. He was a holdout last season and only saw the field for twelve weeks in total. There were reports that he wasn’t his normal self, he was a bit out of shape and wasn’t as explosive given the lack of work in training camp. There were a lot of concerns in LA about both his production potential and his injury risk, but the Chargers still fed him a healthy workload anyway.
There are 162 vacated carries and 55 vacated targets up for grabs in the LA backfield, and the Chargers organization has made clear that they don’t want Ekeler to be a full-blown workhorse for sixteen weeks. If you divide this up over Gordon’s twelve games in 2019, this equates to 13.5 attempts a game and 4.6 targets a game. These numbers are very significant and could put someone in RB2 territory with ease. The distribution is still up in the air since Justin Jackson is another player who has flashed at times, but the fourth-round pick and Kelley’s profile point to him being the first man up to slide into Gordon’s old role.
Kelley is 5’11 and 212 pounds, which isn’t as big as Gordon but it’s plenty big enough to handle an early-down workload. His BMI is actually higher than Gordon’s, meaning science tells us he may be able to take a few more hits. Kelley fits the mold of someone who can be shifty at times, but makes his living on gutting out the extra yard, and most importantly – excelling in goal-line situations. Austin Ekeler had nearly half the red zone carries that Gordon did in 2019, and Gordon only played 12 games. The Chargers want to keep a defined role for Ekeler going forward, and that likely means his goal-line touches will remain low. When the team was near the end zone, they called on Gordon a lot more than Ekeler. If Kelley can prove himself in camp and beat out Justin Jackson outright, there’s a realistic chance that we could see a 180+ touch back with goal-line usage complimenting Ekeler.
The Chargers made some additions to upgrade their offensive line, and whether it’s Tyrod Taylor or Justin Herbert, there’s a good chance they will rely heavily on the run game for the next couple seasons so their new signal-caller can feel comfortable. All he has to do to land himself in the good graces of the coaching staff is be better than Justin Jackson. I don’t want to count anyone out this early in the year, but Kelley is a better player than Jackson and his draft spot suggests it will be his job to lose.
Kelley is going off the board in the 19th round and is ranked as RB68 right now, meaning people are predicting him to be an undrafted waiver wire warmer. Even if some of these carries funnel away from Kelley towards Jackson and Ekeler (which they may), there’s still a strong chance he’s a startable asset in today’s running back landscape. The Chargers are a prime spot for a fantasy back, we’ve seen that many times over. The value he can return if he wins the job in camp is exponentially higher than where he’s being taken. Right now he’s an afterthought of this rookie class when in reality he should be someone in a similar (just slightly less exciting) conversation with Ke’Shawn Vaughn.