For the Cash In Carries series, we look at NFL teams who may give you fantasy gold in the 2020 running game. Like my first set of articles, we take the raw data and examine it for the answers we seek. Which teams will give fantasy owners the best shot at rushing success in 2020? Let’s continue the series by looking at at the LA Chargers team that have decisions to make after last season.
The stats that form the basis of these articles have come from the analysis of a team’s carry performance over the 2019 season. You can find the breakdown of the collection and analysis of these stats in the first article of the series.
Be warned. These articles use carry numbers projections based upon those in the 2019 season.
HOPE FOR THE CHARGERS
Things were looking up for the Chargers in 2019. Two post-season appearances in the previous year. A loss to the Patriots ended their play-off run, but their opponents ended up winning the whole thing. Any team could hold their heads high after a 12-4 season in 2018.
They had even managed to keep the majority of their offensive weapons at the club. Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler in particular had seen great regular season figures. Gordon only played 12 games but still ended up as the RB6. His 18.8 average points / game was second amongst all Running Backs. Only a rampant Todd Gurley bested him. It was a great season for him, the Chargers, and any fantasy owners who had him that year.
A CONTRACT STANDOFF
Gordon was on the last year of his rookie contract, and he wanted to get paid for his hard work. So he started to lay the groundwork for a new and improved Chargers deal.
But the resulting contract disputes and stand-off between player and club blighted the off-season. Training camps and pre-season games came and went, with no progress. So the Chargers pressed on without him, and Austin Ekeler took up the lead back mantle. Justin Jackson and Troymaine Pope provided the backup. And a talent like Gordon’s? Left out in the cold.
TWO DISTINCT PERIODS
It was unsurprising Ekeler and Jackson did a respectable job in September. They had put up good numbers from their supporting roles in 2018, and just continued as before.
Ekeler was in his pass-catching element, with 270 yards and 3 passing touchdowns in that four week period. Both he and Jackson kept the ground game hot as well. Ekeler put up 222 yards and ran in all three of his 2019 rushing touchdowns; Jackson piled 142 yards on top of that.
Gordon’s return in Week 5 saw the Chargers on 2-2, and he was instantly back in the starting role. Restrictions went onto Ekeler’s rushing involvement, and Jackson’s role in the ground game nearly disappeared completely. But Gordon’s output in his first three games showed his lack of practice, limiting him to 81 rushing yards. Although he did manage to regain some form, his return did not bring a repeat of last season. However, what Melvin’s return did was change the approach that the Chargers took with their rushing routes.
There are distinct differences in running route direction in Weeks 1 – 4, compared to the following weeks.
UP THE MIDDLE
Weeks 1-4 saw Ekeler and Jackson as the primary backs. In these games, there was a more even spread in rush attempt direction. In total, there were 95 rushes in the first four games. 35.7% of those headed straight through the middle of the offensive line (34 rushes). After that, the remaining rushes see a rough split between each side. Around 30.4% went to the left of the line (16.8% left end and ~13.6% left tackle). The right-hand side saw 34.6% of rushes (15.7% right end and 18.9% right tackle).
In Weeks 5-17, when Gordon returned to lead back, this distribution became smaller. There is an increased focus through the middle of the offensive line. Of the 263 rushes, 127 go through the middle of the offensive line. That’s nearly half (48.2%) – and an increase of 12.6% share compared to the Week 1-4 runs. In contrast, runs on the left dropped by 4.8%, and 7.7% on the right. With around 50% of the runs through the centre, it gave coordinators easier decisions. No matter who was rushing, planning for the rush up the middle would make you right around half the time. But did this approach pay off?
HOLD THE LINE
Actually, it did.
In Weeks 1-4, 20 of 34 rushes (58.7%) through the middle zones were ineffective (below 3 yards, including losses). The remaining 14 went for over 4 yards, and included 7 (20.5%) that gained over 8 yards.
Skip forward to Weeks 5-17, and the ineffective run percentage rises. 62.9% of runs through the middle managed 3 yards or less – 80 out of 127 runs. In comparison, the percentage of runs over 8 yards drops by 11.1%, down to 9.4%. That equals a huge number of yards to lose from your rushing offence.
SEEING THE DIFFERENCE
Melvin Gordon’s primary use in the rush defense was direct running through the middle. This showed in his rush analysis.
MELVIN GORDON RUSH DISTRIBUTION
Middle zones: 91 (56%)
Left hand zones: 32 (19.6%)
Right hand zones: 39 (23.7%)
Total: 162 (~100%)
Over half his rushes went through the middle. So, when defenses see Gordon in the backfield, they have a good chance of guessing rushing direction. This did affect Gordon’s production, as 60.4% of his runs only got 3 yards or less.
In comparison, Austin Ekeler had a more even distribution.
AUSTIN EKELER RUSH DISTRIBUTION
Middle Zones: 45 (34%)
Left zones: 45 (34%)
Right zones: 42 (31.6%)
Total: 132 (~100%)
Ekeler’s distribution led to bigger percentages for effective runs. It kept defences guessing about which way he would go. As a result, 45% of the Running Backs’ attempts gained more than 4 yards, and 17% gained over 8 yards.
A NEW DIRECTION
So, Gordon has gone to the Broncos. So, with Ekeler in the lead role, the Chargers can expect more rushing direction diversity. And they are taking new directions in their roster as well.
A fourth round pick got them Joshua Kelley from UCLA. Three others rookies have also been picked up and Derrick Gore returns after practice squad time last season. Because of this, no-one has brought in a percentage of carries from other clubs.
But, although the Running Back group has been padded out with rookies, just two experienced Running Backs remain in Ekeler and Jackson.
But how many carries were taken out of the Chargers? Gordon’s departure is factored in, as is that of Philip Rivers and other Running Backs. With no runs coming in, that leaves 52.8% of carries available for players to take into 2020 – currently the 5th highest in the NFL.
So who benefits?
THE OLD GUARD
Running Backs carried out 92.9% of the Chargers rushes in 2019 – the highest percentage of all NFL teams. Continuing this trend would likely see Austin Ekeler as the players with the most to gain.
The Chargers 2019 run offense suited Gordon’s strengths. One that continually used the centre, and did so for over half the runs. As such, this will not have suited Ekeler’s rushing game. His usage was spread more out towards the sides of the offensive line. With Gordon out of the picture, the rushing offense can now be built around Ekeler’s strengths. He has a chance to shine.
AROUND THE OUTSIDE
Ekeler’s expanded use on sides of the offensive line also helped his runs through the centre. Ekeler saw fewer runs through centre than Gordon, but his efficient run (>4yds) percentage in that area was higher. 46.5% of Ekeler’s runs can be classed as ‘efficient’, compared to 38.3% of Gordon’s.
With opponents now having to prepare for this running variance, we should see a big rise in Ekeler’s production. If the defense plans for the wrong zone, then Austin should reap the rewards of a misdirected play.
Ekeler will also see a decent increase in volume. He did have 36.07% of the carries last year. But analysis shows he had 58% of carries in Weeks 1-4 before Gordon’s return. Weeks 5-17 saw Ekeler’s carry share drop sharply, getting only 28% of the carries compared to Gordon’s 60%. Next season has Ekeler in line for a share closer to that 58%. Add in his pass-catching ability and you have the makings of a top 10 RB in many formats.
It is reasonable that Ekeler is high up on ADP boards. He’s hardly an under-the-radar player. As it stands, Ekeler sits 18th overall in PPR leagues, and is predicted to go early in the 2nd round. There have been examples of late first round drafts. And why not? He was already proven as a pass-catching back. His expanded ground game provides a huge boon for his stock. Not to mention it will be a ground game based on his talents. And he was fit throughout 2019, so injury risks are low.
In addition, Ekeler has proven himself to be an adept pass-catching back. However, a previous article theorises that Philip Rivers’ departure will have an effect on his passing game. Since then, the Chargers used a first round pick on Oregon’s Justin Herbert, so it is likely that he will get the nod over previous backup Tyrod Taylor. Herbert has got history of involving his Running Backs in the passing game so this worry may have been addressed.
If you can see Ekeler on the board when it comes to a late second round pick, do not hesitate to take him.
THE NEW FACES
The Chargers have put all their faith behind their new lead Running Back. No first round Running Back draft picks, no players coming in from other teams. So, is it likely that a new face can benefit from the changes? The role for Ekeler is without question. Justin Jackson lacked the opportunity to show himself last season. His limited returns were good, but could someone else do that job as well – if not better?
Of all the signings that the Chargers have made, Kelley stands out. He looks to be the one who will have the best chance of breaking into the starting positions.
On paper, Kelley’s physical stats don’t match exactly with Jackson’s. They are of a similar height, but Kelley has an extra 13lbs in weight. That weight puts him very close to that of Melvin Gordon. Jackson and Ekeler class as lighter Running Backs, so it is prudent to make links between Kelley and Gordon.
Kelley’s NCAA stats only span two years. He transferred to UCLA from UC Davis, a team in the FCS, after his sophomore year. But he made a massive impact over those two seasons. Both years saw over 1000 yards, and 12 touchdowns apiece. He even saw involvement in the pass game during his junior year – amassing 193 yards off 27 completions.
This high-volume ground game will not translate directly to rushing success at the Chargers. It is likely that he gets use in short yardage gains. They may use him to grind out plays late in halves to preserve leads and wind down time. And, if performances merit such a switch, he may even usurp Jackson’s role as supporting back. As it stands though, his limited role and lack of top-level college games may work against him.
Kelley ranks in PPR leagues as RB67 and 227th overall on fantasypros.com – last round picks in some leagues, and beyond others. Some leagues have even seen him draft as high as 110, an early 12th round pick! He may be stashed in deep bestball leagues for potential value later. But meaningful inclusion in any league will depend on injuries and high performance. As such, he should be available on many waiver wires.
One thing to consider is Jackson’s contribution to the Charger offense being similar to Ekeler’s. As such, there may be upside for Kelley for his play style being different to the other two backs. He could provide a different approach to games where needed.
Next time we look at a third team whose changes may mean more fantasy gold in the rush game.
Until then, Keep Rushing!