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Austin Ekeler embraces on-field success carrying over to fantasy football

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Austin Ekeler embraces on-field success carrying over to fantasy football

COSTA MESA, Calif. — Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen can admit a mistake when he makes one.

Recently, Allen expressed regret about passing over Los Angeles Chargers running back Austin Ekeler with the first overall pick in his fantasy football draft.

“I’ve typically had some success, this year not so much,” Allen said about his fantasy football squad. “I messed up by not drafting Austin.”

Ironically, Allen told that to Ekeler on the running back’s weekly Yahoo! podcast, “Ekeler’s Edge.”

Surely, however, it’s a sentiment shared by countless other fantasy owners, and likely several NFL general managers, as the 2017 undrafted free agent from Western Colorado University — a Division II program — continues to prove his NFL worth both in fantasy and reality.

“He’s playing with toughness,” Chargers coach Brandon Staley said. “Setting the example.”

The Chargers are 7-6, and a spot outside the AFC playoff picture, as they prepare to host the 7-6 AFC South-leading Tennessee Titans at SoFi Stadium on Sunday (4:25 p.m. ET, CBS). ESPN Analytics currently lists them with a 74% chance of making the playoffs.

But in an uneven season rife with injury issues, Ekeler has been a constant.

“He is like the Energizer bunny,” Titans coach Mike Vrabel said. “He is everywhere.”

The 5-foot-10, 200-pound Ekeler can hit the gap between tackles as quickly as he can bounce outside. His hands are sure as a pass-catcher and his legs never stop churning.

“He plays much bigger than what he is,” said Vrabel, whose defense is tied for first in rushing touchdowns allowed this season. “He’s quick and he’s hard to tackle.”

Ekeler ranks first in the NFL with 728 yards after the catch, ahead of San Francisco 49ers running back Christian McCaffrey (552) and Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce (515).

He ranks second in the league, behind Detroit Lions running back Jamaal Williams, with 13 touchdowns — despite not scoring in the first three games of the season.

And he has amassed 1,247 scrimmage yards this season, which ranks eighth in the league.

“He’s so tough out of the backfield,” quarterback Justin Herbert said. “And to be able to catch passes like that as well adds a whole other dimension to our offense.”

Ekeler, who is in the third season of a four-year, $24.5 million contract extension, has caught 93 passes for 623 yards, the most of any running back this season.

Last Sunday in a 23-17 victory over the Miami Dolphins, Herbert found Ekeler on a short pass before he navigated a few holes and was dragged down at the one-yard line. He then scored on the ensuing play and celebrated by strumming an air guitar.

Ekeler finished the game with eight receptions for 59 yards, to go along with 45 rushing yards on 15 carries, and became the all-time leader in catches by an undrafted running back in the common draft era (1967) with 375 career receptions.

“I am not really sure how I feel about it because we have had some injuries to receivers, so it’s like, man, I wish those balls were going down the field to some of our guys,” Ekeler said. “Also, as an individual, looking back on my career, that will be a pretty cool mark in my career.”

Also a pretty cool mark? The company Ekeler is keeping in fantasy football, a place that he’s embraced over the last few seasons — even as some teammates decide it’s still not the place for them.

“For me it was like, there’s, so, there’s literally millions of people across the world that love fantasy football,” Ekeler explained. “And [they] have me on their team, so why would I not tap into people that are supporting me?”

Staley grinned when asked, no — he’s never played fantasy. Neither has Herbert, he said. And wide receiver Mike Williams? It’s a no thank you for him as well.

“I only know about fantasy when like, I get one catch and I get tweets like, ‘Go home! You weren’t out there today!’” Williams said, laughing. “I’m like bro, I don’t care about your fantasy.”

But owners featuring Ekeler — who is on a roster in every active ESPN league — might not be suffering from such issues.

Ekeler is averaging 22.52 fantasy points per game this season (PPR scoring), which is on pace to be the most by a Chargers player since LaDainian Tomlinson in 2007 (22.97).

He’s also one of four players with 10-plus fantasy points in every game this season (PPR scoring). The others are all quarterbacks.

“For me at this point, it’s about just being consistent and continuing to increase my role and what I can do for this season,” Ekeler said of his performance on the field this season. “At this point, that’s kind of my expectation now.”

Ekeler has six fantasy squads, but a manager oversees them given Ekeler’s other responsibilities.

“Competitive leagues, so yeah, people they’re not letting me get myself,” Ekeler chuckled.

In one league, he even traded up to snag the No. 3 overall pick in an attempt to get himself on the roster.

But no luck. He went first overall.

So perhaps his parting fantasy advice to Allen holds up, kind of.

“When you have an opportunity you always take yourself first,” Ekeler told Allen. “That’s the only thing you can bet on, as far as that’s the only thing that you’re out there and can control.

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