The Fantasy Football Impact of Austin Ekeler to the Washington Commanders

Mar 12, 2024
The Fantasy Impact of Austin Ekeler to the Commanders

On Monday, March 11th, it was announced that Austin Ekeler would be switching coasts by signing a two-year deal worth $11.4 million with the Washington Commanders. The long-time Chargers great will join a young backfield consisting of Brian Robinson and Chris Rodriguez, with a prospective rookie quarterback taking the helm in 2024.

Click here for more 2024 Player Profiles!

Austin Ekeler’s Running Back Profile

Austin Ekeler and fantasy managers were disappointed in the 2023 season. The pass-catching maven dealt with leg issues that clearly sapped the burst that makes him such a defensive annoyance.

The year started off well for both parties, as Ekeler kicked off the season with 164 total yards and four receptions, spearheaded by a vintage 55-yard scamper en route to 24.4 half-PPR points. Little did we know at the time that the RB2 Week 1 performance would be the highlight of the entire year, thanks in large part to an ankle injury that he suffered in the process. When he returned in Week 6, his typical high-end burst was very clearly missing, as he carried the ball 43 times over the next three games, failing to break any single run over seven yards.

This issue would rear its head many more times over the course of the season, as he failed to top ten yards on a single run in 10 out of 13 games post-injury, delivering the lowest rate of explosive rushes in his seven-year career.

Austin Ekeler Stats, Last Five Seasons
Year G Att. Rush Yards Targets Rec. Rec Yards Scores Half-PPR FP/G FP/G Rank
2019 16 132 557 108 92 993 11 16.4 RB7
2020 10 116 530 65 54 403 3 13.8 RB14
2021 16 206 911 94 70 647 20 19.3 RB3
2022 17 204 915 127 107 722 18 18.8 RB1
2023 14 179 628 74 51 436 6 11.4 RB23

The drop to the RB23 in half-PPR points per game (11.4) wouldn’t have felt so crushing if Ekeler hadn’t performed at such a consistently great level for so many years, and certainly would have been easier to stomach if he hadn’t cost us the 1.04 on draft boards last season. But what is even more likely to stick out in drafters’ minds is the fact that he was still kind of performing, with his usual heightened role in the passing game giving him a floor that we would typically be excited about as a FLEX option.

It’s just that we weren’t expecting to be deciding between Greg Dortch, Adam Thielen, and Austin Ekeler during the fantasy playoffs last year, assuming your team got that far after spending the draft capital on the once-stud RB.

With the Chargers missing the playoffs, Ekeler will be heading into his age-29 season with plenty of time to nurse his ankle before getting himself acquainted with the Washington Commanders and their new Kliff Kingsbury-led offense.

How Austin Ekeler Fits in Washington

For about two hours in the news cycle for releases/free agency signings, Commanders’ running back Brian Robinson had a vast majority of the team’s rushing share in the palm of his hands. Antonio Gibson had headed to the New England Patriots, and last year’s sixth-round selection, Chris Rodriguez, had handled only 51 rush attempts in his rookie season, pointing towards a massive workload for Robinson.

This was, of course, before the Chargers’ third-most proficient rusher in their storied history signed on later that afternoon.

Though nothing is set in stone at this point, it would surprise nobody if Robinson far out-carried his new teammate, but his moderate pass-game role is very unlikely to increase now that the team has one of the most prolific pass-catching running backs of the last decade. On paper, the roles are clearly defined, as the 6’2”, 225-pound Robinson will operate as the short-yardage and goal-line back, as Ekeler will flex his elite-level receiving game as the third down back, assuming most of his ankle woes are behind him.

Robinson v. Ekeler Role-Specific Usage, 2023
Player Yards Created After Contact EPA on Short-Yardage* Targets Per Route Run
Brian Robinson 2.93 (22nd/59) 0.22 (27th/62) 0.21 (35th/74)
Austin Ekeler 2.64 (45th/59) -0.21 (52nd/62) 0.23 (21st/74)

*Three or less yards to go

There’s a world in which Ekeler bounces back and stays injury-free, while Robinson continues ascending in Year 3, considering he missed so much time prior to his rookie season after he was literally shot. With a gun. The NFL was not very excited about the prospect of getting Ekeler after a clearly hampered season (considering he is making essentially the same money as Devin Singletary), but the signing feels like a very good one from where I’m sitting, and offers an Antonio Gibson replacement with far more upside, although with a risky floor.

Fantasy Outlook for the Commanders’ Backfield

The Commanders' offense is a mystery at the time of writing, as we don’t know for sure who exactly will be their 2024 quarterback and, in turn, what exactly their offense will look like. Not to mention a brand new face as Offensive Coordinator with Kliff Kingsbury. Though we can’t make a 1v1 comparison with Kyler Murray and the eventual Commanders quarterback (Drake Maye?), we do have a four-year sample size of Kingsbury’s time with the Cardinals, so we can at least look at how often they used their running backs in the passing game.

From 2019-2022, the Cardinals targeted running backs on 16.1% of their 2,417 attempts, peaking in 2019 when they registered a 17.5% rate. Comparing those numbers to 2023’s rates, they fall almost exactly in line with the league average, if a slight tick higher. That is plenty of wiggle room for Ekeler to produce if Kingsbury continues a similar play-calling style.

As for Robinson, with so much of his fantasy upside depending on the frequency of his goal-line attempts (he had eight last season, 62% of the backfield’s carries inside the five), it’s hard to pinpoint how valuable he will be until we get a clearer picture of who they’ll be running out at quarterback in 2024. If they do the unthinkable and head into the season with Sam Howell and Marcus Mariota, his fantasy aspirations would likely sink further than that of Ekeler.

Each back has a decent week-to-week floor, but the tandem will likely make a better pairing in real-life football than in fantasy, cannibalizing each other to the point that each is closer to the RB2/3 fringe than a locked-in starter.

Bottom Line

  • Austin Ekeler was a fantasy disappointment in 2023, but considering he dealt with an obvious ankle injury all season long, the RB23 finish is not as bad as it’s been made out to be.
  • Depending on his return to full health, Ekeler will provide an upgrade over Antonio Gibson, bolstering the Commanders’ offense overall.
  • Though their roles will bleed into each other’s from time to time, Brian Robinson should have control of short-yardage situations and most of the goal-line work as the bigger back, which keeps him fantasy-relevant.
  • According to current Underdog ADP, Ekeler and Robinson are going in the RB23-RB26 range. We should wait to see who drops after this news, but if Ekeler begins to fall further back in the RB3 section of the draft, he should be pounced on.
Latest Articles
Most Popular