Austin Ekeler had a tremendous season for the Los Angeles Chargers in 2019. In fact, he and Christian McCaffrey had just the second and third 900-receiving yard season by a running back since the turn of the century.
With Melvin Gordon holding out the first four games, Ekeler got a bigger role and did not disappoint. He finished the season with 92 receptions for 993 yards, eight receiving touchdowns, 132 carries, 557 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns.
That production netted Ekeler a new contract extension as well. Ekeler and the Bolts agreed to a four-year, $24.5 million contract, making him the 10th-highest-paid running back in the league. That contract is an exceptional value for Ekeker.
While Austin Ekeler was great last season, he is due for some regression in 2020 with the Los Angeles Chargers.
Just because I think that Ekeler is going to regress in 2020 does not mean that I think he is a bad running back. His contract will still be of great value and he will still be a threat in both the running and passing game that could come up with a big play when the team needs it most.
However, in terms of sheer numbers, I would be cautious of what to expect out of Ekeler. While it seems like he is just scratching the surface, there are multiple factors that are going to impact his production in 2020.
First is going to be the change at quarterback. While it was time to move on from Philip Rivers, he has always been someone who has excelled at getting running backs involved in the passing game and running backs are often his favorite target to throw to.
According to Sharp Football Stats, the Los Angeles Chargers had the highest target rate to running backs last season, targetting running backs in 32 percent of passes. They had the third-highest in 2018 and the 11th-highest in 2017.
Taylor transitioning to quarterback is going to cut out some of the targets that Ekeler is going to get. Some of those pressured dump-offs that Rivers would throw are going to turn into scrambles and throws downfield for Taylor.
Another reason for the high number of targets for Ekeler this past season was the situation at wide receiver. The Chargers essentially got zero production out of the WR3 or WR4 position last year, with Keenan Allen and Mike Williams doing practically all of the work in the receiving corps.
That led to Ekeler essentially becoming the wide receiver three and then leading the team in targets. When the team drafts a receiver in this year’s NFL Draft, which is essentially a guarantee, that rookie receiver is going to take some targets away from Ekeler.
Not having Gordon on the roster and Ekeler being the RB1 is going to have an impact as well. Common sense would say that without Gordon Ekeler will get more targets and thus more yards, but that was not the case last season.
Ekeler’s three games with over 100 yards receiving last season all came when Gordon returned to the team. Ekeler averaged 6.25 targets and 67.5 receiving yards per game in the first four games of the season. He averaged 6.92 targets and 60.25 receiving yards per game in the final 12. Gordon not being in the lineup led to a slightly lower number of targets.
Plus, without having the security blanket of Gordon, the Chargers are probably going to be warier in how often they want Ekeler catching the ball and making contact downfield. The team does not have a suitable RB1 option after Ekeler, thus, the team will probably look to lessen Ekeler’s workload slightly to keep him fresh and healthy.
All things are pointing to Austin Ekeler regressing for the Los Angeles Chargers in 2020. He will still be one of the best dual-threat backs in the league and will be dangerous when the team needs him, but overall, his numbers are destined to take a hit.