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Spotlight: Mike Tolbert

posted by Jason Wood on Aug 13th

Jason Wood's thoughts

A year ago, Ryan Mathews was the most sought after rookie in fantasy circles. The talented runner was drafted by San Diego and was immediately perceived as the Chargers long-term replacement for LaDainian Tomlinson. Head coach Norv Turner even gave us a clear set of projections to build upon:

Norv Turner (in April 2010): I would expect Ryan to have 250 carries and 40 catches, something like that. That's obviously saying Darren is going to have the same role he's had.

Those numbers would have set Mathews up as a potential Top 12-15 fantasy running back. And this wasn't the idle talk of a hopeful coach; at least we didn't think so. Turner has, after all, been the offensive chess master behind some of the league's best running backs - including Emmitt Smith and Tomlinson.

But life has a way of turning expectations on their head, and Mathews fell short of Turner's goals:

  • 158 attempts
  • 678 yards
  • 4.3 yards per attempt
  • 7 TDs
  • 22 receptions
  • 145 yards receiving
  • 124 fantasy points (RB30)

Hardly a disaster, but there's no question Mathews let his fantasy owners down last year. Thankfully the Chargers had depth at the RB position - in the form of Mike Tolbert. The mammoth 243-pounder had come out of Coastal Carolina in 2008, and was the team's fullback for his first two seasons. In 29 games, Tolbert had totaled 38 carries and 30 receptions - we are being overly kind to call him a part time contributor. But in 2010, because of Mathew's slow start, Tolbert got an opportunity.

  • 182 carries (more than Mathews)
  • 732 yards (more than Mathews)
  • 4.0 yards per attempt
  • 11 TDs (more than Mathews)
  • 25 receptions (more than Mathews)
  • 216 yards receiving (more than Mathews)
  • 161 fantasy points (RB19)

Tolbert went undrafted in most leagues last year, which made him a stellar free agent pickup. How often can you land a top 20 fantasy RB off waivers?

In spite of Tolbert's strong showing, and Mathews' struggles, most people have decided that 2011 will turn out differently. Take a look at the average draft position for the Chargers two runners:

  • Ryan Mathews (RB17-36th Overall)
  • Mike Tolbert (RB36-92nd Overall)

Tolbert is being drafted, on average, as a fantasy handcuff - a back that owners know can produce, but likely won't unless the starter gets hurt. Meanwhile, Mathews is being viewed as a good bet to produce quality RB2 numbers in spite of his rookie struggles.

Is that a logical assumption?

  • Tolbert was more productive last year
  • Tolbert flourished as a receiver (even in his first two years as a blocking fullback), and the Chargers will need someone to fill Darren Sproles role as the 3rd down RB
  • Tolbert is healthy
  • Mathews failed his physical at the start of training camp
  • Mathews has struggled in early camp practices
  • Norv Turner gave Tolbert the start in the first preseason game
  • Tolbert was stuffed on fewer plays (7.7%) versus Mathews (8.9%)

If you want to argue that Mathews profiles as the more complete running back, I won't argue with you. If you watch film of his play at Fresno State, Mathews ran with power, patience and decisiveness. He let his blockers set up and he hit a hole, and displayed a second gear when he saw daylight. He was also an able receiver as a collegiate, which is vitally important in the pro game. But sometimes talent isn't enough. 1+ years into his career and there are warning signs that Mathews lacks the drive and fire to be GREAT. Will Tolbert ever be great? Probably not - but he fights to be the very best player HE can be, and coaches love that kind of work ethic.

No matter who gets the ball, both runners should benefit from an advantageous supporting cast:

  • The offensive line returns all five starters, and the key backups
  • Philip Rivers is one of the best quarterbacks in the league
  • Malcom Floyd and Vincent Jackson re-signed, ensuring defenses won't be able to play safeties in the box with regularity
  • Antonio Gates is healthy - he's a punishing lead blocker and is masterful at pulling linebackers away from the line of scrimmage


  • Tolbert emerged last year as a powerful goal-line runner, able to handle a full workload and produce Top 20 fantasy stats
  • The Chargers return their entire offensive line, All Pro QB, receiving corps, and coaching staff -- continuity breeds optimal output
  • Ryan Mathews is off to a slow start in training camp


  • Mathews was drafted to be an every down back, and Tolbert can flourish as a fullback if the Chargers feel he'll be better in that role (think of how Baltimore rolled Le'Ron McClain into a pure blocking role after his breakout offensive season)
  • Tolbert fumbled 5 times last year, losing three

Final thoughts

Mike Tolbert's 2010 production served as one of those annual reminders of how fantasy prognostication is an inexact science. No one thought he would outproduce a heralded rookie tailback that was immediately anointed by Norv Turner -- yet that's exactly what happened. This offseason Tolbert has done everything right, while Mathews has struggled. That's not to say Mathews still can't lock down the #1 role so many project for him, but as of right now the odds are in favor of it being a true committee. Committees rarely produce fantasy stars, and I'm not betting on Tolbert matching last year's Top 20 production -- but if you're going to draft one of the two Chargers backs, Tolbert is the one that has value given his much lower ADP.

Quotations from the message board thread

To view the entire Player Spotlight thread (there's a ton of fantastic commentary in there), click here.

Blackjack said:

I know Mathews was a big flop last year based on his draft status but we have to remember, he was a rookie. He did miss 4 games which if he played descently in Ryan could have easily had 1,000 yards and 10 tds. Not bad for a rookie. The nice thing is Mathews has NO competition at rb. Mike Tolbert isn't that good. He is a fb that can can 3 yards and a cloud of dust. Mathews is an ewlite talent, SOD this year in fantasy drafts.

greggorymac said:

Not sure why Tolbert is being lumped into the Mathews spotlight? Are we going to have a Charles/Jones spotlight as well? Tolbert had the season he did because Mathews went down to injury. During that time Tolbert definitely showcased his talent and probably carved out a slightly bigger role going forward but completely healthy this is Mathews gig.

Sigmund Bloom, FBG Staff said:

The Chargers love Tolbert and he is not going anywhere. When both Tolbert and Mathews were healthy in week 14 and 15, Tolbert was the primary back until the game was sewn up. I see people drafting as if Mathews will get 300+ touches and Tolbert will be a backup. Ain't gonna happen. Tolbert is going to get at least 30-40% of the work including short yardage/goal line and that's in a worst case scenario. I see something more like a true RBBC with a 10th round or later pick on Tolbert being the shark play this year.

Raiderfan32904 said:

Mathews was a much heralded rookie replacement of the legendary LT2. As soon as he was drafted, many were annointing him with the fantasy hype that Mark Ingram is now getting for the Saints. Except that Ingram is likely going to live up to his hype, and with Mathews may never know. Mathews comes from a small school, with an upright running style and injury history that has extended into his pro career. He's had an uphill battle learning to keep himself on the field either with nagging injuries or suspect pass protection. He had a 4.3 ypc, but was inconsistent when he played. There are indicators of his talent level, and he could eventually find his game on a consistent level. He also needs to learn to protect Phillip Rivers on pass plays or he will ride the pine.

Tolbert did everything well enough in the potent SD offense. He plays behind an elite QB and that opens holes consistently. Tolbert is an overachiever, and makes the most of the space he sees. He may be a fantasy bargain in the later rounds, as there will be many Mathews owners expecting a breakout year who will have to overpay for the handcuff.

Not saying a Mathews rebound won't happen, but I feel much more comfortable taking a Tolbert in the 9th/10th round than taking Mathews in the 3rd/4th. If the hype machine starts up again for Mathews, he'll start going in the 2nd round again.

fightingillini said:

I think it's premature to totally writeoff Tolbert. He certainly showed value to the SD offense. We can easily envision a scenario where Tolbert gets most of the short yardage/goalline carries so that Mathews stays fresh and healthy. Mathews is going to need to score 10+ TD to have an opportunity to be the SOD, and I can't see that happening unless Tolbert gets injured. Plus, SD offensive line isn't that great and there is no reason to believe that Rivers will throw less. The offense goes through Rivers.

MrTwo94 said:

While McClain and Tolbert may not be carbon copies, the lessons learned should be similar. Last year is not this year. Talent will prevail.

Mathews, with his rookie learning curve and all his injuries, still averaged more carries per game than Tolbert (and ypc). That's not even taking into account all the partial games he missed due to injury. He was more explosive than Tolbert even with the debilitating high ankle sprain. Yet Mathews haters still like to say Tolbert is the smart play here. We've all heard the coach speak about splitting carries evenly but when one back is clearly better than the other, the split is never even. If Mathews improves at all, due to learning curve or health, this won't be a close race. However, I won't be surprised to see Tolbert in on the goal line. Given that Sproles was in on almost all 3rd downs, Mathews' 22 catches are pretty impressive. If Sproles is indeed out of the picture, receptions will be a huge part of Mathews' upside. That being said, Tolbert is a serviceable back and will be rotated in. There will likely be over 400 RB carries to spread around.

Mike Tolbert projections

Jason Wood1606457251750
Message board consensus1305307171271