Joshua Kelley: The Running Back You Never Knew You Wanted
Could Joshua Kelley be the Chargers’ most valuable rookie in 2020? He was selected by Los Angeles No. 112 overall in the fourth round of this year’s NFL Draft. Kelley joins a top-notch backfield that includes Austin Ekeler and Justin Jackson. The running back position needed to be taken care of heading into the draft after Melvin Gordon left the Chargers in free agency to join their AFC West rivals, the Broncos. Ekeler signed a four-year contract extension with Los Angeles worth $24.5 million with $15 million in guarantees.
His journey began as an undrafted free agent in 2017 and last season Ekeler was a key contributor to the Chargers offense. He filled the gap left by Gordon’s unsuccessful holdout and rushed a career-high 132 times for 557 yards and three touchdowns. Ekeler also had a career-high in receiving yards with 993 yards and eight receiving touchdowns. He’s locked in as the Chargers starting running for the immediate future. It was a surprise to see Los Angeles draft a running back so high considering Justin Jackson was selected in the seventh round of the 2018 NFL Draft. He has shown a lot of promise when given opportunities, but injuries ultimately derailed his 2019 season.
Fantasy players may have a number of burning questions about the Chargers backfield entering the 2020 season. How will the insertion of Tyrod Taylor as the starting quarterback impact the team offensively? Will Kelley leapfrog Jackson on the depth chart? Will Ekeler be deployed as a bellcow or as part of a running back by committee? What is Kelley’s fantasy value in redraft and dynasty? This article will answer those questions and more. Let’s discuss Kelley’s collegiate statistical body of work and his fantasy outlook with the Chargers.
Joshua Kelley’s Statistical Body of Work
Kelley played two seasons at the University of California, Davis before transferring to UCLA. UC Davis was the only school that pursued the former two-star recruit who was ranked as the No. 232 running back in the class of 2015. Kelley ran for 530 rushing yards on 106 attempts and scored three touchdowns as a freshman. As a sophomore, he rushed for 609 rushing yards on 87 attempts and scored four touchdowns. Kelley signed on as a walk-on at UCLA and worked on the scout team in 2017. He sat out that season as a redshirt due to NCAA transfer rules. UCLA replaced head coach Jim Mora with Chip Kelly heading into the 2018 season and awarded Kelley with a scholarship. He hit the ground running that season.
Kelley started in nine games during the 2018 season and saw action in 11 games. He ran for the 10th most yards in UCLA history (1,243) with six games of 100 or more rushing yards including a memorable performance against the University of Southern California.
Joshua Kelley (@SmoothplayJK) had a day to remember when he rushed for a rivalry-record 289 yards in the 2018 @UCLAFootball victory over USC.
— UCLA Athletics (@UCLAAthletics) April 23, 2020
Kelley rushed for at least one touchdown in each of the last eight games of the season. He ranked fourth in the PAC-12 and eighth in the FBS with an average of 113 rushing yards per game—he ranked 19th in the FBS with an average of 130.5 all-purpose yards per game. At the end of the season, he was a first-team All-Pac-12 selection by the Associated Press and won the Henry R. Red Sanders Award as the Bruins’ most valuable player.
In 2019, Kelley started all 11 games last season and became the eighth running back in UCLA history to have consecutive seasons with 1,000 or more rushing yards. Kelley rushed for 1,060 rushing yards, had four 100-yard games, and scored 13 touchdowns last season. He was a first-team all-conference selection by the Associated Press and won the Henry R. Red Sanders Award for the second year in a row. Kelley was also a semifinalist for the Burlsworth Trophy as the nation’s top walk-on or former walk-on player. He finished his UCLA career ranked 14th on the school’s all-time rushing list (2,303) and 11th for career touchdowns (25).
Kelley’s production and efficiency, however, dipped in 2019 when compared to 2018 according to a few of the metrics at Sports Info Solutions.
|Season||Yds Per Attempt||Yds Per Attempt on 1st Down||Yds Per Attempt on Off-Tackle/Outside Runs||Yds After Contact Per Attempt|
Kelley fought through a preseason knee injury and this likely played a part in his regression. He lost some of his explosiveness, but Kelley’s vision and toughness were crystal clear on game film. His 2018 season showed NFL teams what he’s capable of. Kelley’s strong showing at the Senior Bowl and the NFL Scouting Combine strengthened his stock heading into the draft which resulted in him landing with the Chargers. Let’s walk through Kelley’s fantasy outlook in Los Angeles.
How Joshua Kelley Fits with the Chargers
Chargers' head coach Anthony Lynn was adamant at the end of the 2019 season that the offense would go through substantial changes during the offseason. This would give the team’s offensive coordinator Shane Steichen time to place his own stamp on the Chargers offense since he took over from Ken Whisenhunt in the middle of last season. You are aware of the notable changes that have taken place. Longtime starting quarterback Philip Rivers is now with the Colts. Backup Tyrod Taylor is projected to be the starter in Week 1. The Chargers also drafted their quarterback of the future, Justin Herbert, No. 6 overall in this year’s draft. Los Angeles is also moving forward with Ekeler as their lead back.
The Chargers offense under Whisenhunt operated primarily through shotgun and quick passes. Rivers averaged a high number of pass attempts per game as he surveyed the field and distributed the football to his receiving weapons. The scheme did limit the use of play action and other forms of misdirection which Lynn would like to see more of in 2020. You should expect to see the Chargers offense work from under center more frequently leaning heavily on wide-zone runs and play-action passes.
Los Angeles has also made moves this offseason to strengthen its offensive line. The Chargers offense with Taylor could resemble the Bills offenses he led from 2015 to 2016. Lynn was an offensive coach in Buffalo during that time. Taylor averaged 28.1 pass attempts and 209 passing yards per game in 29 games over that time frame. The Bills running backs averaged 24 rushing attempts and 5.4 targets per game. The Chargers finished in the top-10 in pass attempts and second in pass-to-run ratio last season. All signs point to the Chargers running more in 2020 with Taylor under center.
Over the last two seasons, Gordon (19.1) and Ekeler (13.1) operated as a committee splitting the opportunities per game. This trend will continue this season with Ekeler inheriting Gordon’s workload. We will have to see if Taylor uses his running backs more as a receiver out of the backfield. He has a tendency to hold the football and take sacks instead of throwing to his backs. The only other running back who finished with more targets last season than Ekeler (108) was Christian McCaffrey (143). Ekeler ranked outside the top-25 in yards created among running backs, according to fantasydata.com. He also faced a light defensive front on 62.1% of his 132 rushing attempts last season and only scored three rushing touchdowns.
"... That's three guys you can all get out in the route, can all catch the ball. They're all tough."
Training camp and the NFL preseason will decide who gets the bulk of the opportunities between Kelley and Jackson. The winner of this running back battle would inherit the offensive snaps and touches Ekeler had last season. Kelley is the frontrunner because of his fourth-round draft capital. He’s a physical, downhill runner who will operate as a change-of-pace and short-yardage grinder for the Chargers as part of their running back by committee.
Kelley’s a very good runner in between the tackles and could end up stealing goal-line work from Ekeler. His receiving ability is also underrated. He wasn’t used much as a receiver out of the backfield at UCLA, but had a chance to display his very good hands at the Senior Bowl. Kelley will have more of a role in the Chargers backfield this season than many expect. This all bodes well for his fantasy outlook in 2020. Kelley’s landed in a very good situation where he’ll have a defined role if he beats out Jackson for the No. 2 role during training camp. This role could potentially grow as the season progresses.
The Bottom Line
- Kelley will be the favorite to co-lead the Chargers backfield this season with Ekeler. His fourth-round pedigree suggests he’ll see the field sooner rather than later.
- He can be viewed as an upside RB4 in redraft and has the potential for much more if Ekeler were to miss extended time.
- From a dynasty perspective, Kelley’s landed in a very good situation with the Chargers. The size of Ekeler’s contract doesn’t suggest bellcow and he’s a better fit as part of a committee. Kelley is someone to target in the third round of rookie drafts.