FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (AP) — Austin Ekeler's best decision last Sunday might have come off the field.
The Los Angeles Chargers running back — an avid fan of fantasy football — plugged a productive playmaker into one of his lineups.
“When you have yourself in fantasy, you never don’t start yourself,” Ekeler said with a big smile. “I always start myself in fantasy if I have myself.”
“Probably a pretty good day,” he said of the fantasy implications.
No doubt. And after missing three games with a high ankle sprain, the star running back is rounding back into his dynamic form.
“It starts with their running game,” said New York Jets defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich, whose unit will be tasked with defending Ekeler on Monday night. “I know that sounds funny because when you talk about the Chargers, you talk about Justin Herbert, you talk about the receiving corps and all that, but I really think Ekeler, he drives the engine there.”
Same for the Jets and Breece Hall, who along with Ekeler, is among the top dual-threat running backs in the NFL.
The second-year standout has been a force for New York, leading the league with 5.7 yards per carry. He also entered the weekend with two of the NFL's three longest runs this season — a year after a torn ACL cut short a promising rookie campaign.
“He’s a special back,” Jets coach Robert Saleh said. "He’s kind of a deceptive runner. He’s just so massive, it doesn’t look like he’s moving fast and you feel like you’re tracking properly and then all of a sudden you say, 'Oh crap, where’d he go?”
And by then, it's usually too late for opposing defenders.
The 6-foot-1, 220-pound Hall has 443 yards rushing and two touchdowns in seven games, and 19 catches for 189 yards and a score coming out of the backfield. He has seen increased action as a pass catcher in the Jets' past two games with 11 receptions for 130 yards.
“I think it’s good for everybody to have that safe haven, when you can throw a guy a ball 2 yards and make a big play with it,’’ Hall said. “It’s always good to know and it gets everybody comfortable to know you’re like a safety jacket for everything.”
Just as Ekeler is for the Chargers. And has been for the past seven seasons.
The 28-year-old Ekeler has 30 career TD catches, the youngest running back to reach that mark. He’s the only running back in the Super Bowl era (since 1966) to have that many with the same team. Ekeler is also one of only seven players in NFL history to have 30 TD receptions and 30 TD runs.
“There's something about him when he's in the lineup that just changes the energy of the offense,” Ulbrich said. "I feel like they move more efficiently, they're more physical, they finish better, and obviously he's an important part of their offense, period.
“He gets them going.”
Jets linebacker Quincy Williams might find himself having to take down the elusive running back — and echoed Ulbrich's value to Herbert in the Chargers' offense.
“Ekeler, he’s kind of like his get out of jail free card,” Williams said.
Hall acknowledged he can't really model his game after the 5-10, 200-pound Ekeler because of their different body types and running styles. But he has admired what Ekeler has done since being signed in 2017 as an undrafted free agent out of Western Colorado.
“He’s been doing it for a long time and I think he’s really underpaid," Hall said. “I think he should be getting paid a lot better than what he is and everything like that.”
Ekeler made headlines during the offseason when he requested a trade because he was unhappy with his contract and wanted an extension, He has one year remaining on the four-year, $24.5 million deal he signed in 2020. He remained with the Chargers after agreeing to having up to $1.75 million in incentives added to his contract.
If he becomes a free agent after this season, he'll give plenty of teams a lot to consider. Ekeler has 40 total touchdowns since the start of the 2021 season, the most via runs and receptions in the NFL during that span.
Definitely the stuff of a plug in and play fantasy running back.
“It’s cool to see what he does," Hall said. "He's stout, he runs, can catch the ball, runs good routes. And if you give him space, he’ll make you pay.”
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