In the past 20 years, the Chargers have drafted three RBs ahead of where they drafted Isaiah Spiller this year (at No. 123). Two of those backs – Ryan Mathews and Melvin Gordon – went on to be multi-year starters. The third, Joshua Kelley, was handed a healthy 134 touches in 14 contests as a rookie in 2020. Had he met the Chargers’ expectations, there might have been no need for Isaiah Spiller two years later.
Instead, Kelley struggled to move the ball, averaging only 3.2 yards per carry and a near-league-worst 1.5 yards after contact. Not surprisingly, he lost the No. 2 job in 2021 to Justin Jackson and was even less efficient in Year 2 on merely 38 touches.
Kelley’s brief foray into fantasy relevance is critically important to understanding Spiller’s unrealized upside. Despite already having all-world RB Austin Ekeler, the Chargers made their second-biggest draft investment in a non-starting RB since they selected Jermaine Fazande in the second round in 1999. Kelley had his chance. Larry Rountree looked even worse on 37 touches last season.
It’s Spiller-or-bust behind Ekeler. And the rookie’s ADP suggests more bust than a breakout, despite the strong probability that he’ll (at minimum) match Kelley’s meaningful usage from two seasons ago.
The team telegraphed their offseason addition when General Manager Tom Telesco said in January, “Austin can handle a heavy workload, but he shouldn’t have to.” Ekeler himself took it a step further before the draft, encouraging podcast listeners to “go ask my management, like, ‘Hey, make sure you limit my touches, like you got to make sure I can get through the entire season.’”
Ekeler gets it. Although he was a workhorse in college, he’s thrived in the NFL largely because of situational usage, primarily in the passing game. His 206 rushing attempts last year were significantly above his 2019 career high of 132. He also played a career high 731 offensive snaps, which were 132 snaps more than his previous high.
If we assume that he and his team get their way – that they’ll curtail his usage to keep him fresher throughout the season and for the all-important playoffs if they get there – then Spiller stands to be the biggest winner.
Now, there are always risks involved when drafting an unproven rookie RB. He could flop in the opening month, leading the team to eyeball free agency (Devonta Freeman, anyone?) to bring in a quick fix. But Spiller isn’t your typical fourth-round draft pick. He lost draft value last year at Texas A&M, in part, because of a severe loss of offensive line talent in his final collegiate campaign. He also caught 74 balls in college, demonstrating three-down ability that could come in handy if Ekeler needs to sit.
Simply put, Spiller – a top-10 RB out of high school – might be one of the most NFL-ready backs drafted in the fourth round or later in years. While his ceiling is capped by Ekeler’s greatness, he could realistically exceed Kelley’s 2020 usage total while pushing for 10 touches per game. And as much as this team fed Ekeler near the goal line last year (No. 6 in rushing attempts inside the 10-yard line and No. 4 inside the 5-yard line), we can envision Spiller taking over some of that fantasy-friendly work. After all, Ekeler’s backups last year combined for an impressive 15 carries inside the 10. That’s a realistic target for Spiller in Year 1.
Additionally, we should appreciate that Jackson, Kelley, and Rountree combined for 118.2 fantasy points last year. It’s not farfetched to think that Spiller could achieve that mark – thereby comfortably exceeding ADP expectations – even if Ekeler again earns 250+ touches.
Most of the fantasy universe believes Spiller’s ADP is on point or too optimistic. 78 of 100 experts compiled by Fantasy Pros (78%) rank him at or worse than his ADP. 96 of 100 (96%) place him outside the top 38.
We are urging fantasy managers to draft him at least one round ahead of his ADP on the assumption that he’s a great bet to finish inside the top 38.
Isaiah Spiller, LAC (RB47 ADP)
Contrarian Prediction: Top-38 RB