Austin Ekeler Is BAD For Justin Herbert
Just from the title alone, I know that fantasy managers and Chargers fans alike are going to think I have no idea what I’m talking about. I assure you, that the data and numbers have been in front of us the entire time. The only thing that is going to stop Herbert from having another top-10 season is Austin Ekeler. Now, I’m not saying that Herbert won’t finish as a top-10 QB this season, but what I am saying is that when he doesn’t I will be here to say “I told you so”, and I’m planting my flag on that one.
To further explain my beliefs before diving into the data and numbers, Justin Herbert is a FANTASTIC QB. As a Eugene native, I watched Herbert as a senior in high school, as I was a senior as well. We didn’t go to the same school, but everyone in Eugene knew his name and who he was, so people like me flooded to his high school games to watch the magic unfold before he blew up. I always knew he would make for an excellent QB, and boy did he show it last year. With that being said, I see a regression coming from Herbert in the upcoming season and potentially further, because he has one habit that he’s had since high school even; he overutilizes his running backs in the passing game. Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look.
(Photo Credit: Oregon Live)
Nobody cares about high school football when it comes to a professional athlete, and honestly, I couldn’t tell you if he had this same “issue” in high school. During his tenure at Oregon where Herbert spent 4 years, almost 25% of his passes came AT or BEHIND the line of scrimmage, which was his second-highest targeted area. He had a 9.28% target rate on passes that were in the 16-20 yards long, which is considerably high for a college QB and a great indication that he’s comfortable making those types of throws (which he showcased as a rookie). Herbert did target the 6-15 yard range less than the majority of the 2019 QB class, targeting that range on just 29.28% of pass attempts, whereas the 2019 class (most of them, at least) targeted it 34% of the time. As we’ve seen from his rookie season and the film, Herbert has no problem throwing it deep, but perhaps that has overshadowed the fact that Herbert utilizes his RBs more than anyone would like to admit.
As a rookie, Herbert threw for 4,336 yards, 31 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions on 595 attempts (66.6% completion percentage and 7.3 Y/A). Herbert finished the year with 342.84 FP and 22.86 FPPG, which made him the QB9 and the QB7 (on an FPPG basis). That’s insane for a rookie in any position, but especially for a rookie QB with no real off-season. Of course, everyone is already aware of the record-breaking stats and season that Herbert had, so let’s look at the stats that are driving me to write this article.
During weeks 4-11 (Minus their week 6 bye, of course) when Austin Ekeler was out, Justin Herbert threw to his RBs a total of 37 times, which averaged out to 5.2 targets/game. In week 3, before Ekeler got injured in week 4, he had ELEVEN (11) targets. Justin Herbert that week? 14.7 Fantasy Points, finishing as the QB19. Once Ekeler came back into the lineup from week 12 onward he saw 48 TOTAL targets in only 6 games, which if you need help with the math is 8 targets per game. Now, in week 12 alone Ekeler had 16 targets, followed by back-to-back weeks of 9 targets each, then two weeks of 3 and 4 targets respectively, and finally 7 targets in week 17. From Weeks 12-17 plus the week 3 where Herbert had Ekeler the entire game, Herbert averaged 18.8 PPG, which would have put him at QB12 for the entire season - Which is still great for a rookie QB, so why is there a problem? Well, from weeks 4-11 Justin Herbert was THE QB2 on both a PPG basis and overall.
In a dream season where Austin Ekeler remained healthy for all 16 (going to be 17 games next year, so adjust accordingly) he would have averaged 8 Targets/Game with Herbert at the helm based on his averages throughout the weeks he played healthy with Herbert (7.8 Targets/Game). The weeks where Ekeler ACTUALLY got 8+ targets Herbert scored 14.7, 16.4, 4.4, and 15.7 Fantasy Points - Averaging out to 12.8 Fantasy Points per game.
On average Herbert targeted Ekeler on 18.25% of his pass attempts, and in ¾ games where Herbert did in fact target Ekeler 18%+ of the time he scored less than his average PPG (18.88). That 18.88 FPPG puts Herbert at QB12 on an FPPG basis, and that’s not including Dak Prescott’s 4 games or Marcus Mariota’s 1 game. So what’s the problem?
There is no problem with being THE QB12 as a rookie QB, but we can’t act like Week 17 was an actual game. Before we exclude week 17, as it was the last week of the year and Kansas City rested their starters, I already know some, if not most, of you, are going to claim I’m cherry-picking stats, but how many people actually count that final game of garbage time in their stats/calculations? I can tell you that I don’t know a whole lot who would count that game as a prediction for future success/failure. Without that game, you are looking at 16.87 PPG, which ties him as QB21 with Jared Goff*. And to add to my point that Week 17 means absolutely NOTHING, nobody plays their fantasy championships and/or playoffs during Week 17 unless you are a sociopath, so the 33 points that Herbert scored did you absolutely nothing.
*Those two names shouldn’t be in the same sentence unless you say Herbert is lightyears better than Goff, but just putting even more perspective on just how capped Herbert is as long as he allows Ekeler to handicap him.
2021 Outlook and Beyond
For dynasty, I fully believe Justin Herbert is a top-10 fantasy QB. He broke more records than anyone could have imagined and looked even better on film than he did on the stats sheet. I’m not out on Justin Herbert in dynasty, but I’m definitely out on him in 2021 as he continues to adjust to the next level. We can expect him to be better, but we can’t expect him to NOT utilize a top-2 pass-catching back in the league considering he’s always relied on his backfield as either one of the first looks or a safety net.
Contrary to my point, LAC did an AMAZING job at getting Herbert the OL to prevent him from facing the same type of pressure he saw in 2020, which very well could mean that with more time to throw comes fewer targets for Ekeler. That’s a bet/risk I’m willing to take. Let’s talk about one of the most overlooked aspects of football, and that’s the Strength of Schedule.
The Chargers have the 25th easiest schedule for their QB, meaning there are only 7 other teams with a HARDER schedule for their QBs coming into 2021. This adds to my entire point of fading Herbert coming into year 2, but not fading him for dynasty. With a healthy Ekeler in the lineup barring a Week 17 fluke against the VERY weak back-up defense that the Chiefs had, Herbert was QB21. Knowing that Herbert targets Ekeler at an extremely high rate makes me turn away from his QB6 price tag for this year, but makes him the perfect buy-low after a few dud-games this year as people will begin to overreact and have flashbacks of Baker Mayfield.
Austin Ekeler currently has 3 years left on his contract, which includes the 2021 season. After that, he is a 29-year-old UFA. The Chargers have an out in 2022 - which contains only $3M of dead cap, but after signing him to a 4-year/$24.5M contract extension just last year it would be more likely for hell to freeze over. What does this mean for Herbert and fantasy managers alike? All you can do is hope that Herbert breaks the habit of utilizing his RBs at one of the highest rates in the NFL. That or you hope for an Austin Ekeler trade. Regardless if Ekeler stays or gets traded/cut for whatever reason, I still like Herbert in dynasty.
(Photo Credit: NBC Sports)
Only Alvin Kamara and JD McKissic were targeted more than Ekeler in the entire season, and yes, that includes the time Ekeler missed with injury. Again, that means that during weeks 1-17, even when Ekeler wasn’t playing, only two RBs were targeted more than he was in 2020.
In college, Herbert threw the ball AT or BEHIND the LOS 25% of the time, and that translated to the NFL whenever Ekeler was on the field as he targeted him 18.25% of the time. Will this change in 2021 or during the time that Ekeler remains with the team? Or is it something where we have to wait for Ekeler to be off the team in order to see Herbert stop targeting his backs as much - just like we saw during the weeks in which Ekeler was out? Herbert is currently being drafted as the QB6 in SF/2QB leagues, and with a ceiling of QB2, which we saw him achieve as a rookie from weeks 4-11 WITHOUT Ekeler, the price tag seems like a steal. With a floor of QB21, which we saw him perform when he had Ekeler in the lineup, the price tag is too rich for my blood, and it should be for yours too.