Putting Austin Ekeler’s Magical 2021 Fantasy Football Season into Perspective

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Magical…

Perfection…

Awesome Excellence…

I was struggling to find the words to express the season Los Angeles Chargers RB Austin Ekeler had for fantasy in 2021. Before we stray too far away from this past season, I wanted to put some words down to give you some perspective of just how great he was.

He DropKicked My Fears

Coming into the season, there were a couple of causes for concern with Ekeler. How would I know? I wrote them down. I looked back at some of the research I did for our Top-10 RB episodes in August. Part of my job is to bring statistical arguments and discussion questions to the forefront for Andy, Mike, and Jason. With Ekeler, I’ll admit I liked him for obvious PPR reasons but these were the main two I brought up:

  • He’s not a big TD guy…
  • Can he handle the FULL workload?

Both of those questions feel silly now.

Let’s talk about those TDs first. Coming into 2021, Ekeler had nine total rushing TDs on 401 attempts. That’s one every 45 rushing attempts. Expecting double-digit TDs was unlikely but perhaps at the high-end of Ekeler’s range of outcomes if you got a full season from him.

Yes, he had an outlier eight receiving TDs in 2019 but that figure didn’t feel repeatable. Let’s put eight receiving TDs in perspective. There were four such seasons that exist in our NFL universe… (and now we get to add Ekeler’s 2021 campaign)

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Year Player Tm Games Receptions Rec Yards Rec TD Rec Yards per Game
Next Year Rec TDs
1991 Leroy Hoard CLE 16 48 567 9 35.4 1
2000 Marshall Faulk STL 14 81 830 8 59.3 9
2001 Marshall Faulk STL 14 83 765 9 54.6 2
2019 Austin Ekeler LAC 16 92 993 8 62.1 3
  • First off, Marshall Faulk was a cheat code.
  • Second, I had to look up your boy Leroy Hoard. I apologize for not knowing he existed. But nine receiving TDs on 48 receptions for any position (albeit an RB) is downright insane. He had six total receiving TDs over the next eight years of his career.
  • But the main point is seeing how rare it is to get four receiving TDs in a season from a RB, much less doubling that.

But twenty… 20(!) total TDs!

I’m not sure any of us saw that coming. Ekeler’s now one of seven RBs in league history with 20 TDs & 70 receptions in the same season. Cheating in fantasy football is finding an RB who not only can fall into the end-zone 10+ times but boost their weekly floor with receptions. Ekeler decided he wanted to check both boxes for 2021.

Oh and those workload concerns? Ekeler handled them quite nicely. With 300 opportunities, he not only saw the volume but continued his otherworldly efficiency that we’ve seen throughout his career.

Year Age Team Games Rush Rush Yards Rush TDs YPC Targets Rec Rec Yds Rec TDs Fantasy Finish
2017 22 LAC 16 47 260 2 5.5 35 27 279 3 RB45
2018 23 LAC 14 106 554 3 5.2 53 39 404 3 RB24
2019 24 LAC 16 132 557 3 4.2 108 92 993 8 RB6
2020 25 LAC 10 116 530 1 4.6 65 54 403 2 RB29
2021 26 LAC 16 206 911 12 4.4 94 70 647 8 RB2

The previous three seasons he averaged 193 opportunities per season and we still loved him for it. But as Andy and Jason mentioned on Tuesday’s Top-10 RB TRUTH episode, the same questions might remain in the minds of fantasy managers for 2022. Will he be seen as a top-5 guy?

He Was a Red Zone Warrior

But beyond the end-of-season fantasy finish, what is most remarkable about Ekeler is how he dominated the red zone unlike any other RB in the league… and unlike any other RB in league history.

Yes, you read that last past right.

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Ok, part of adding that tweet is the simple pleasure of using any Mighty Ducks reference possible in my writing.

But let’s unpack further the damage Ekeler did inside the 20. Here are the leaders in RB red-zone fantasy points for 2021:

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Rank Player Team Games RZ Rush Attempts RZ Rush TDs RZ Targets RZ Rec RZ Rec TDs RZ FPTs/G RZ FPTs
1 Austin Ekeler LAC 16 49 12 16 14 8 10.1 161.9
2 Jonathan Taylor IND 17 89 14 4 3 0 6.7 113.3
3 James Conner ARI 15 43 15 3 2 1 7.5 112.9
4 Joe Mixon CIN 16 43 12 8 7 2 6.5 104.6
5 Ezekiel Elliott DAL 17 38 10 17 12 2 6.1 103.16
6 Damien Harris NE 15 45 13 2 1 0 6 89.5
7 Cordarrelle Patterson ATL 16 33 6 12 9 4 5.3 85
8 Aaron Jones GB 15 34 4 16 13 5 5.1 77.2
9 Leonard Fournette TB 14 41 6 18 13 2 5.1 71.8
10 Josh Jacobs LV 15 39 9 6 4 0 4.7 70.2
  • Jonathan Taylor had 89(!) red-zone rushing attempts… the most of all time. Yet, Ekeler with 40 fewer carries outpaced Taylor inside the red zone
  • Ekeler averaged 2.57 fantasy points per touch in the red zone. James Conner, who led the league in goal-line carries and red zone TDs, dominated averaging 2.50 inside the 20. Taylor, for all his volume, averaged only 1.23.
  • Ekeler averaged 10 fantasy points per game inside the 20. That’s the 2nd most over the last decade with Todd Gurley (2018) averaging 11.3 in his monster season. Nevertheless, Gurley averaged only 2.17 fantasy points per touch.

Since we’ve been on a red-zone rabbit trail, imagine if Ekeler not only played a 17th game but if he saw 70+ touches, he would’ve been on pace for three more scores inside the 20 if we factor in what he averaged on a per touch basis. I got curious and looked at every RB to see 70+ carries inside the 20 since 2001:

Year Player Team RZ Rush Att. Total TDs
2021 Jonathan Taylor IND 89 20
2004 LaDainian Tomlinson SD 83 17
2003 Priest Holmes KC 76 27
2006 Larry Johnson KC 76 17
2004 Corey Dillon NE 75 12
2012 Arian Foster HOU 74 15
2005 Edgerrin James IND 73 13
2006 LaDainian Tomlinson SD 73 28
2016 LeGarrette Blount NE 72 18
2001 LaDainian Tomlinson SD 71 10
2008 Michael Turner ATL 70 17

Beyond Jonathan Taylor at the top, the names that stick out are Priest Holmes and LaDainian Tomlinson when they basically broke fantasy football. Holmes had 25(!) and rushing TDs inside the red-zone and LT had 24. When you add in Shaun Alexander’s 2005 season with 24 red-zone TDs, those are the only RBs to eclipse 23 scores inside the red zone since 2001. But Ekeler did it non-conventional way, something he’s done his whole career.

Here are all 20 of those scores in order of occurrence with the expected points before and the difference after Ekeler scored.

TD # Week Opponent Quarter TD Type Distance Score Before Score After ExB ExA Diff
1 1 @ WAS 1 Rushing 3 Tied 0-0 Lead 7-0 6.51 7 0.49
2 3 @ KC 2 Receiving 16 Lead 6-0 Lead 14-0 3.72 7 3.28
3 4 LV 2 Receiving 14 Lead 14-0 Lead 21-0 4.89 7 2.11
4 4 LV 4 Rushing 11 Lead 21-14 Lead 28-14 4.95 7 2.05
5 5 CLE 4 Rushing 4 Trail 28-35 Tied 35-35 6.51 7 0.49
6 5 CLE 4 Receiving 19 Trail 35-42 Trail 41-42 6.28 7 0.72
7 5 CLE 4 Rushing 3 Trail 41-42 Lead 47-42 3.22 7 3.78
8 8 NE 1 Rushing 5 Tied 0-0 Lead 7-0 6.06 7 0.94
9 10 MIN 3 Receiving 2 Trail 10-13 Lead 17-13 4.95 7 2.05
10 11 PIT 1 Rushing 6 Trail 0-3 Lead 7-3 6.06 7 0.94
11 11 PIT 2 Receiving 10 Lead 7-3 Lead 14-3 5.83 7 1.17
12 11 PIT 3 Receiving 17 Lead 17-10 Lead 24-10 4.19 7 2.81
13 11 PIT 4 Rushing 5 Lead 27-20 Lead 34-20 4.44 7 2.56
14 12 @ DEN 2 Receiving 12 Trail 0-14 Trail 7-14 4.1 7 2.9
15 13 @ CIN 4 Rushing 1 Lead 31-22 Lead 38-22 6.97 7 0.03
16 14 NYG 1 Rushing 1 Tied 0-0 Lead 7-0 6.97 7 0.03
17 15 KAN 4 Rushing 2 Lead 14-13 Lead 21-13 6.74 7 0.26
18 17 DEN 1 Rushing 3 Tied 0-0 Lead 7-0 6.51 7 0.49
19 18 @ LV 2 Rushing 14 Trail 0-10 Trail 7-10 4.65 7 2.35
20 18 @ LV 2 Receiving 14 Trail 7-10 Lead 14-10 3.9 7 3.1
  • Technically, Ekeler ended the season with only 10 goal-line carries. Seven of his rushing attempts inside the 5 did not turn into scores of his 17 opportunities close, 10 of them turned into TDs.
  • Rewind back to that Cleveland game in Week 5. He had three TDs in the 4th quarter that tied the game, brought them within one, and finally took the lead 1:38 on a 3-yard score. Unbelievable.
  • It makes sense all of Ekeler’s TDs would be within 20… he only had three total rushes all year over 20 yards.

Questions for 2022

Hopefully, you survived on this wild ride of diving deep into Ekeler’s season.

Yet, the biggest questions I have for 2022 are much of the same:

  • If 20 TDs feels unrepeatable, where is a good middle-ground for projecting? Is 15 still a bit high?
  • Eight receiving TDs are impossible to stick into a projection model. But even with putting him down for four, what if his target total jumps back near the 90 range?
  • 300 opportunities feel like a safe haven for any RB. But an RB like Ekeler needs to be weighed differently knowing his efficiency throughout his career and the fact a target matters more for fantasy than a rushing attempt.

Comments

Steve Smyth says:

You guys sold me on Ekeler this year and I drafted him in both of my leagues. In my retention league, I intend to keep him even though his salary will be at or near the top of all RB’s. Thanks.

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