After the first two weeks of preseason, it appears that Ryan Mathews is going to carry the load for the Philadelphia Eagles this year. Mathews is a 28-year old veteran and a former first-round pick who has played for two teams over six years in the NFL. Talent has never been a concern for him. He is one of the most versatile, explosive backs in the NFL whose aggressive running style doesn't match his sleek appearance. That aggressive running style and finely tuned athleticism may play some role in his durability issues.
Mathews has only carried the ball 1,029 times in his career. That averages out to 172 carries per season, an extremely low number for someone who was expected to be the feature back during multiple years in San Diego. He has missed 23 starts in total and only been available for all 16 games in one season, 2013. Last year, during his first year with the Eagles, Mathews played in 13 games because of a groin issue.
The risk with drafting Mathews is built into his price. His ADP has suffered since the early years of his career because you can't rationally expect him to be available for 16 weeks of the season. He is the definition of a boom-or-bust player.
At the time of writing, Mathews ADP in MFL leagues is 72. He would be the final pick in the sixth round in a league where every player goes at his average spot. A late sixth-round is too low for Mathews. Even with his injury concerns, Mathews is being taken behind players who also have major reasons to be skeptical even though he has a greater upside than them. Immediately above Mathews is Arian Foster. Foster has more severe durability questions at this point of his career and he is going to share the backfield with Jay Ajayi and Kenyan Drake in an offense that has major questions about its run blocking.
Further above Foster you have Matt Jones, a fumbler who averaged 3.4 yards per carry during his rookie season, and DeMarco Murray, a back who is set to be the Titans' starter but also someone who won't be a third-down option or maybe not even a goalline option because of Dexter McCluster and Derrick Henry. It's not hard to envision Murray losing carries to Henry in the starter role either.
Mathews, so long as he is healthy, will have very little competition for his touches. Darren Sproles will continue to play an important role as a receiving back. Sproles is 33 years old though so his workload could diminish somewhat. Furthermore, Sproles' snaps could come with Mathews on the field as the Eagles continue to search for a solution to their problems at receiver. Wendell Smallwood was expected to challenge Sproles for touches but he hasn't emerged through training camp and the preseason because of injury. Kenjon Barner is the clear choice as the number two back but his skill set isn't close to Mathews and he has had his own niggling injuries to deal with.
Over the first two preseason games, Mathews has carried the ball seven times for 33 yards and a touchdown. He has been everpresent with the Eagles first-team offense and, crucially, they are running him between the tackles.
In Chip Kelly's offense, the Eagles running backs were too often neutralized by their own linemen. It was tougher for them to be creative or elusive because they were moving laterally at the beginning of each play. If Andy Reid's offense in Kansas City is anything to go by, new head coach Doug Pederson will be more varied in how he runs the ball. He will use different formations and play designs to give his running backs opportunities to attack defenses in different ways. That should make Mathews an ideal ball carrier for his offense. Mathews' versatility extends to the passing game but it primarily lies in his ability to run in different ways.
The above gif highlights Mathews' first carry of the preseason.
The Eagles line up in shotgun and run Mathews on an inside zone play. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker is aggressive from the second level, crashing into Mathews' initial running lane. Mathews recognizes that quickly and is able to cutback against the formation quickly and decisively. He finishes the play powerfully to gain 10 yards downfield. On the very next play, Mathews is again given the ball but this time on a very different design.
Sam Bradford has shifted forward so that he is under center. Mathews lies in a deep position directly behind him. Mathews' acceleration from a standing start is one of his more impressive traits. Few backs in the league can match it running from shotgun. That acceleration is just as valuable when his quarterback is able to turn and hand the ball to him but Mathews is able to read the defense better from this position because he is less conerned with making up the time. This is a subtle counter run. The offensive line forces the defense to the left while Mathews hesitates for a moment before being directed in the opposite direction.
The blocking on this play is excellent, especially on the edge where the defensive end is knocked to the ground by number 47, a tight end. That tight end advances downfield to act as a lead blocker for Mathews.
Mathews is initially directed wider to the right than he wants to be. He is squared off with the unblocked cornerback. With one quick action, he plants his foot and cuts away from the defender to accelerate upfield. He is following his tight end, number 47, but can't reach him before the safety hits him in the hole. Mathews shows off impressive strength and balance to stay up before using one hand to stretch just far enough to get into the endzone.
This is a run that a finisher makes. Someone who knows where the endzone is and makes sure he does just enough to get there. Mathews should be the Eagles goalline back despite his slender frame. The Eagles don't have big-bodied ball winners outside to throw to in the endzone, so running should be a priority in short-yardage situations.
In the second preseason game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Pederson showed off another run design.
It may not be your traditional power run design but this play features a pulling guard and a pulling tight end to clear open a running lane up the middle as Mathews runs from shotung. Mathews' footwork stands out on the play as he hesitates for a split second to allow his blocking to develop in front of him before accelerating through the gap and onto the second level.
This game also gave us a look at a Mathews-Sproles personnel package.
Although this play doesn't lead to a touch for Mathews, the ball is thrown to Sproles in the mismatch against the linebacker covering him in the slot, it should feature prominently enough in the Eagles offense to turn some Sproles targets into carries for Matthews. This is the type of formation where Bradford will likely have the option to check into a running play depending on how the defense aligns. With Mathews still on the field, the Eagles have a stronger running threat than they would have if it was just Sproles in the backfield and their third or fourth receiver in the slot.
The system and play calling that Doug Pederson is bringing to Philadelphia will get the most out of Mathews. Mathews averaged 5.1 yards per carry and scored six touchdowns in Kelly's scheme, but that scheme didn't set him up to attack the defense like this one looks set to.
His health is an unavoidable factor. It can't be ignored. It's not being ignored though. If anything, as a late sixth-round pick, Mathews' health concerns are having too great of an impact on his price. He should be going late in the fourth round or early in the fifth considering his upside. Even if he only plays in 12 or 13 games, his potential as a matchup winner on a weekly basis will more than compensate for his absence on other weeks.
With the rise of the Zero RB strategy, it's crucial that you make the right decisions with the second-tier running backs. Like a discount basket at the end of the checkout line, each one comes with a fault but few, if any, have the upside that Mathews has.