Week 1 had a lot of great performances by players who weren’t rostered by a majority of fantasy players in guys like Malcolm Brown, Nyheim Hines, Parris Campbell, Laviska Shenault, among many others. But one player that I’ve had my eye on for a while as a sleeper this season is the Chargers rookie running back Joshua Kelley. I recommended that you picked him up before week 1, but I didn’t get the opportunity to explain in detail why I am such a big fan of Kelley outproducing his draft capital/waiver cost. Today I will take a deep dive into Joshua Kelley’s fantasy potential and expectations this season. Let’s take a peek.
The Draft Profile and Pedigree
College Stats (UCLA)
|Year||Games Played||Rushing Attempts||Rushing Yards||Rushing TDs||Receptions||Receiving Yards||Receiving TDs|
Kelley had a solid career in college, transferring to UCLA from UC Davis and averaging 5.1 YPC over the course of 454 carries and scoring 25 touchdowns in his two-year career at UCLA. But what made Joshua Kelley a consistently solid player during his college career?
There are a few things that draft analysts pointed to that make Joshua Kelley a good prospect. One of the first things that stand out is his toughness and use of his body to overpower defenders. This will make him a great player for goal-line and short-yardage situations. He showed durability and an ability to handle a large workload in his career at UCLA, averaging 20.64 carries per game. His physicality is also seen in his pass-blocking where he does a good job of squaring up defenders and protecting the quarterback. This may not seem too important for fantasy purposes, but doing a good job in keeping his quarterback upright will lead to Kelley having more opportunities on the field and potentially see more carries.
But to paint a complete picture of Joshua Kelley’s we need to examine his weaknesses. The biggest weakness that Kelley suffers from is his lack of elusiveness. He’s not the kind of back that’s going to consistently shake defenders, but the good thing is that he knows this and plays to his strengths of running north-south with power. In addition, Kelley’s burst is not overly impressive, with his score ranking in the 23rd percentile according to PlayerProfiler. While it would be great if Kelley were better in these areas, there have been running backs that have been successful despite not being elite in these areas – so long as they play to their own strengths.
The Film From Week 1
Kelley had some good plays during week 1 against the Cincinnati Bengals. Let’s dive in and take a look at four of his best plays from the game.
A pretty good run here by Kelley, who plants his foot in the dirt, hits the hole, and turns it into a nice 26 yard gain for the Chargers. I would expect most NFL running backs to turn this play into a big gain, but it’s nice to see that Joshua Kelley doesn’t have awful vision a la Trent Richardson.
Now let’s look at this play. Here, Kelley lowers his head and shoulder to truck a defender and generate a few more yards after contact. This ability to fight through contact will make Kelley a dangerous player in goal-line and short-yardage situations.
Next up is my favorite play that Kelley made all day. He’s almost assuredly going to be hit in the backfield by three defenders, but he makes a sick spin move to turn it into a nice gain. This is the type of play that you’d see out of an elite back like Saquon Barkley, and while Kelley is not Barkley it shows he’s not a JAG (‘Just Another Guy’) in this backfield and is a legitimate threat to Austin Ekeler’s early-down workload.
One of the most intriguing things about Kelley against the Bengals was how the Chargers used him when they got closer to the end zone, giving him four red zone touches. It makes sense as Kelley is the best built back for the red zone role, standing at 5’11” and weighing 212 pounds, and he rewarded the Chargers for giving him this work on Sunday with a five-yard touchdown. If Kelley maintains this role near the goal-line that gave Melvin Gordon 37 red zone touches (3.1 per game) last year, he is going to easily outproduce his draft/waiver cost.
Kelley’s competition for the season is going to be with fellow running back Austin Ekeler. Ekeler performed well last season taking 132 carries for 557 rushing yards, catching 92 passes for 993 receiving yards, and scoring 11 touchdowns. But with Ekeler there are very real concerns on whether he can handle a big workload on the ground, with only ten games of 10+ carries in his 47 game career so far (including last Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals). This history suggests that the door is open for someone else to take over a majority of the early-down carries in Los Angeles.
In addition, the Chargers have Justin Jackson who will also get carries from time to time as a change-of-pace option. Jackson has handled 81 carries for 410 rushing yards over the course of 21 games for the Chargers and has caught 24 passes for 157 receiving yards in this time. While Jackson isn’t much of a threat for bell-cow duties due to his build, he could steal a carries from Kelley and make him a little less valuable for fantasy purposes.
Joshua Kelley is fortunate to play for Anthony Lynn, who is one of the most running back-friendly coaches in the entire NFL.
While we shouldn’t expect the Chargers running backs to get 33 carries on a consistent basis, we can continue to expect the Chargers offense to utilize their running backs similarly in the red zone and see at least a few more opportunities in the passing game. While passing game usage will benefit Austin Ekeler more than Joshua Kelley, Kelley wasn’t completely inept in that area during his college career and is guaranteed to receive more receiving work than his zero target, zero reception, zero receiving yard performance last Sunday.
— Eli Grabanski (@3li_handles) September 15, 2020
We can expect Anthony Lynn to continue to focus on getting his running backs opportunities, and given the talent that Joshua Kelley has showcased in his college career and in Week 1, he will get his fair share of those opportunities.
Joshua Kelley has got some upside this season. As Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn said after the team’s win on Sunday, “It would have been hard to win that game without Joshua today.” Based on everything we know about Kelley, he is going to be a matchup based Flex play when all the Chargers running backs are healthy, with most of his fantasy value coming from being the most effective back in the red zone for the Chargers. If Austin Ekeler misses any time, Kelley will be a high-end RB2, making him one of the best ‘handcuffs’ in the league. Kelley is a great player to roster in any league with more than ten fantasy teams.
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