It is not that Austin Ekler signing with Washington is a major surprise as a landing spot.

The Commanders brought in Anthony Lynn as their new running game coordinator this offseason.

Lynn had Ekeler from 2017-2020 when he was the head coach of the Chargers and was there as a first-time head coach the year the team signed Ekeler as a free agent.

The contract Ekeler received compared to the rest of the field of running backs on the opening day of free agency was the interesting part of things.

Ekeler inked a two-year deal worth up to $11.4 million while backs such as D’Andre Swift and Tony Pollard signed for far more annually.

Austin Ekeler Career Stats

YearAttRuYDYPCRuTDTgtRecReYdReTDPPR/Gm
2017472605.52352727936.7
20181065545.235339404312.1
20191325574.2310892993819.3
20201165304.616554403216.5
20212069114.4129470647821.5
20222049154.513127107722521.9
20231796283.557451436113.2

Pairing the fact that Ekeler will turn 29 years old this May with his 2023 output puts that contract more into focus.

Ekeler had his worst season as a fantasy asset since early in his career. Put together with a first-round ADP in fantasy drafts, he was easily one of the largest hits taken a year ago at the top of drafts.

If you then came back and added Josh Jacobs or Tony Pollard (two other backs who signed today with new teams off down seasons), then you largely were drawing dead to open your drafts.

Ekeler has never been a hyper-productive rusher. He has never hit 1,000 rushing yards in a season.

He rushed for fewer than 50 yards in 11-of-17 games in 2022 and then rushed for fewer than 50 yards in 9-of-14 games last season.

Last year, he only topped 67 rushing yards one time.

Ekeler’s calling card for fantasy and real-life production has been about what he can do as a receiver and scoring touchdowns.

In 2023, both of those areas took major hits.

His 3.6 receptions per game were his fewest in a season since 2018.

After averaging at least 6.2 yards per target in each of his opening five years in the league, Ekeler has averaged 5.7 and 5.9 yards per target the past two seasons.

In 2022, he was aided by a bevy of injuries to the wide receiver room. In 2023, not even that could save him.

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Austin Ekeler 2024 Fantasy Football Outlook

YearEPA/AttLightBox%Success%Explosive%Stuff%1D/AttYBC/AttYAC/Att
20170.0729.8%51.1%14.9%19.1%25.5%2.433.11
20180.0119.8%39.6%17.9%17.0%23.6%1.593.63
2019-0.1137.1%38.6%11.4%18.2%24.2%0.993.23
2020-0.1136.2%37.9%12.9%16.4%22.4%1.433.14
20210.018.0%43.2%10.7%15.0%25.7%1.413.01
20220.030.4%41.7%10.8%19.1%22.5%1.52.99
2023-0.1933.0%33.0%3.9%16.8%19.0%0.892.64

From an underlying metric stance, Ekeler had a massive fall-off that rivaled what we ran through with Josh Jacobs in our break down of his move to Green Bay.

Ekeler’s rate of runs that gained 10 or more yards was ahead of only Jacobs and Kareem Hunt among the 49 running backs to run the ball 100 or more times during the regular season.

A couple of things are noteworthy when looking at Ekeler’s 2023 season.

The first is that Ekeler suffered a major ankle injury the first week of the season.

In that same game, Ekeler had 161 total yards on 20 touches. In that game, Ekeler had two explosive runs on his 16 rushes.

He then missed the next three weeks.

Returning from injury, he had just five runs of 10 or more yards on his final 163 rushes of the season.

Watch Ekeler’s opening game against Miami and then get in the open field later in the season against Green Bay.

That is the same human in the same season.

There is not a complete apples-to-apples overlap, but Ekeler’s 2023 rate stats on the ground look a lot like Jonathan Taylor’s 2022 season when he attempted to play through an ankle issue that eventually forced him to miss the rest of that season.

YearEPA/AttLightBox%Success%Explosive%Stuff%1D/AttYBC/AttYAC/Att
Ekeler 2023-0.1933.0%33.0%3.9%16.8%19.0%0.892.64
Taylor 2022-0.1638.5%34.4%10.9%19.3%20.3%1.403.08

Taylor remained more explosive of a runner through his ankle issues, but we inherently hold him in a higher tier of an explosive run creator than Ekeler to begin with.

The point here is that Ekeler’s 2023 season was impacted by his Week 1 injury.

Ekeler’s yards after contact have dipped from the season prior since 2018, but that comes with the territory of a back as seasons progress.

But Ekeler also was impacted by the deteriorating state of the Charger offensive line.

No Charger running back had success last year, which aids his case there.

His 0.89 yards before contact per run were by far the lowest of his career.

The Chargers ranked 24th in ESPN’s run block win rate (70%) and were dead last in collective run blocking grade per Pro Football Focus.

I am not suggesting that a 29-year-old version of Ekeler is going to rekindle his early career output, but Washington paid a fair price today compared to the other signings while leaving themselves room to gain a bargain.

Going to Washington also allows Ekeler to revert into more of a committee back playing alongside Brian Robinson.

We have a very clear potential usage tree here with Robinson doing the grunt work and Ekeler going back to more of a change-of-pace rusher and pass-catching role.

We know Washington will try and run the football with Lynn on board, even with Kliff Kingsbury as the new offensive coordinator.

Kingsbury deservedly took a lot of grief for his initial run as a coach in the NFL with the Cardinals, but one of the most surprising aspects of his run in Arizona was his ability to establish a productive running game despite his notoriety in the passing game before taking the job.

Under Kingsbury 2019-2022, the Cardinals were fifth in the NFL in EPA per rush with their running backs (-0.03) and seventh in success rate (40.3%).

That said, Ekeler has never run the ball more than 206 times in a season. I would wager he lands near or below the 150 rush mark in 2024 unless Robinson misses time.

The issue we have with fully banking on Ekeler in the receiving game is that right now we do not know who the quarterback will be in Washington.

If they do select Jayden Daniels, his rushing ability can compromise a tangible target share if Ekeler is not scoring touchdowns.

Brian Robinson 2024 Fantasy Football Outlook

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