Austin Ekeler was incredible in 2022; there is no denying that. He finished as RB1 in PPR and did so at the age of 27. The last time an RB1 was 27 or older was Adrian Peterson in 2012. I have been a HUGE Ekeler fan and supporter in fantasy, but this year I am not. He is my most high-profile fade this year.
Reasons to Fade Ekeler
Now when I say fade, I mean fading him at the top of the draft. I currently have him as RB5 and 7th player overall. If, by some chance, he were to fall to the second half of the first round, I would definitely take him. That is very unlikely and not something you should expect to be a legitimate possibility.
So why would I fade Austin Ekeler at his ADP of second overall in PPR? His age and injury history definitely doesn’t help, but the main reason is the loss of Joe Lombardi. You may think, “Joe Lombardi was terrible. Bringing in Kellen Moore will boost the offense”. While yes, Lombardi was not a good OC and was rightfully fired. For fantasy purposes, however, it doesn’t bode well for Ekeler.
Lombardi’s Passing Scheme
The biggest problem arguably with Lombardi was his uncompromising commitment to his scheme. No matter the situation, he refused to make any adjustments, so much so that he had Michael Bandy running Kennan Allen’s routes at one point while Allen was injured. A huge component of this scheme was running many quick routes, which often went to Ekeler even though Herbert had a cannon for an arm. For some reason, he also ran Ekeler frequently in the red zone instead of ever calling fades to big red zones targets like $60 million man Mike Williams
Red Zone Usage
There is no way Kellen Moore would give Ekeler similar usage, nor would anyone. Receiving stats will be the biggest reason for the potential drop. Ekeler led all running backs in receiving targets with 127. That is 19 more than the next closest RB in Christian McCaffrey, with 108. Under Kellen Moore’s playcalling in Dallas, Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard only had 84 combined. The Chargers led the league in offensive plays run. The Cowboys were also in the top ten, but it will still be a drop-off in pace and opportunities. Ekeler was on the field for a whopping 504 passing snaps and ran routes on 86.5 percent. Tony Pollard, considered the receiving back in Dallas, only ran routes on 77 percent of the 316 passing downs he was on the field for. Long story short, it is unlikely Ekeler can get all that close to his receiving numbers from last year, and with Moore’s tendency to rotate running backs.
Next, we have the red zone situation. As mentioned earlier, unlike most teams, Lombardi LOVED to use Ekeler in the red zone and hated using his tight ends. Ekeler was first in rushing yards and second in red zone receptions behind only Travis Kelce. Was the Cowboys’ top red zone target last year? Tight End Dalton Shultz. Moore will not follow Lombardi’s footsteps and ignore giants Gerald Everett and Donald Parham. Expect Ekeler’s rushing attempts and targets to take a dip under Moore and his ten red zone rushing touchdowns.
So there you have it. My argument as to why Austin Ekeler shouldn’t be a top 5 pick. This might be a bummer to fantasy owners, but this is probably a good thing for Chargers fans. Maybe Justin Herbert will be allowed to throw downfield this year without Lombardi calling quick routes every other play!