A popular question heading into the 2019 fantasy football season is who is the preferred handcuff to Melvin Gordon: Austin Ekeler or Justin Jackson? This question has become even more important after Gordon, who is in the last year of his rookie contract, issued a “trade me or pay me” ultimatum to the Chargers a few days ago. Now either Ekeler, Jackson, or both may see a huge rise in value if Gordon holds his word and refuses to play the 2019 season without a contract extension or a trade.
The opening days of training camp did not lend any clarity on the matter since, as expected, Gordon was a no show and the Chargers seem to be holding their ground in extension talks (or lack thereof). The two are apparently millions per year apart in current negotiations and it does not appear that Gordon will make his return to the team in the near future as a result.
To make matters even more murky, Chargers signal caller, Phillip Rivers, commented on the running back group stating: “It certainly is a deep position for us, and those guys all love to play and work hard. We love Melvin, but we’re going to go with what we’ve got. It’s a pretty dang good group.” This doesn’t sound like a player overly anxious to get his teammate back on the field any time soon. All this being said, I do think the two sides reach a deal, but not at the cost of Gordon missing valuable training camp reps and practice time. Gordon would be extremely tough to replace if he misses time as he racked up 2,987 rushing yards on 713 carries (4.1 yards per carry) and 28 rushing TDs with 1,385 receiving yards on 149 receptions (9.3 yards per reception) with an additional 10 receiving TDs.
Now that we are done with the drama, lets dive into the fantasy implications of the holdout and hammer out the handcuff situation. Early vibes from the fantasy community were very high on Jackson, and rightfully so after he showed flashes last season when given the opportunity. Jackson was drafted in the 7th round last year out of Northwestern as a jack-of-all-trades back, and he lived up to those standards last season. However, it looks pretty clear that Ekeler is the back to own in the event of a Gordon holdout or injury. This is even more evident after seeing Ekeler receive the majority of the first-team reps early on in camp.
In Ekeler’s 2017 rookie campaign he showed that he has the chops to rack up numbers in the League, and can offer some stand-alone value. He finished his rookie season with 47 rushes for 260 yards (5.5 yards per carry) and 2 TDs to go along with 27 receptions (on 35 targets) for 279 yards (10.3 yards per reception) and 3 TDs for a total of 539 yards and 5 TDs: not bad for an undrafted rookie.
Ekeler followed up his rookie campaign for an even bigger 2018 season: 106 rush for 554 yards (5.2 yards per carry) 3 TDs and 39 receptions (on 53 targets) for 404 yards (10.4 yards per reception) and 3 TDs for a total of 958 yards and 6 TDs. It is also important to remember that Ekeler accrued these numbers in only 14 games as he dealt with some minor injuries costing him 2 appearances. These numbers show that not only can Ekeler clearly produce at a high level, but that he is extremely efficient with his touches—he was the number 5 running back in terms of yards per carry (for qualified ball carriers) and was also Pro Football Focus’ number 6 running back in terms of elusiveness (out of 56 qualifiers).
While Ekeler had the better season in terms of numbers, Justin Jackson also flashed his potential in 2019—specifically in Week 15 against the Chiefs where he turned 16 rushes into 58 yards and a TD to pair with 3 receptions for an additional 27 yards. Jackson operated as the workhorse in this game as both Ekeler and Gordon were absent due to injury. While these were respectable numbers, Jackson was not nearly as efficient as Ekeler—Jackson finished the season with 50 rushes for 206 yards and 2 TDs in addition to 15 receptions for 175 scoreless yards.
Thankfully, last year fantasy owners got a glimpse of what the Chargers’ backfield would look like sans Gordon. Gordon missed weeks 13, 14 and 15 due to injury. Ekeler, as referenced above, also missed weeks 15 and 16 due to injury. The important numbers to look at are weeks 13 and 14 where both Ekeler and Jackson were active without Gordon. Here is what Ekeler and Jackson were able to produce acting as a committee in weeks 13 and 14 against the Steelers and Bengals, respectively:
Week 13 – 13 att, 21 yd, 1.6 YPC, 0 TD
Week 14 – 15 att, 66 yd, 4.4 YPC, 1 TD
Week 13 – 5 rec, 8 tgt, 22 yd, 4.4 YPR, 0 TD
Week 14 – 2 rec, 5 tgt, 28 yd, 14 YPC, 0 YD
Week 13 – 8 att, 63 yd, 7.9 YPC, 1 TD
Week 14 – 7 att, 12 yd, 1.7 YPC, 0 TD
Week 13 – 1 rec, 1 tgt, 19 yd, 19 YPR, 0 TD
Week 14 – 2 rec, 2 tgt, 23 yd, 11.5 YPR, 0 TD
Based on the above numbers we should expect to see a similar rotation if Gordon does, in fact, hold out or if he were to be injured. I do expect Jackson to get some additional run having his first year of experience under his belt, but he would still be the clear 1B to Ekeler’s 1A. Fantasy owners should expect Ekeler to gobble up around 15-18 touches per game and Jackson to handle around 10-13. As we speak, both Ekeler and Jackson should be on all fantasy owner’s draft board, regardless of whether or not you draft/plan to draft Gordon. If you do draft Gordon it will be very tough to roster both Ekeler and Jackson as handcuffs—for the Gordon owners I recommend drafting Ekeler over Jackson.
Now for their cost: Ekeler’s ADP currently stands at running back 43 and 108 overall while Jackson is currently being drafted as running back 67 and 218 overall. Neither player is particularly expensive at the moment, but I expect both players’ ADP to rise in coming weeks as the Gordon situation gets a little more clarity. As it stands now I would highly recommend targeting either running back a round or two ahead of their current ADP (especially if you make an early investment in Melvin Gordon) as this could prove to be a steal if Gordon does hold out or is traded.