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Spotlight: Ryan Mathews

posted by Jason Wood on Aug 4th


Jason Wood's thoughts

Ryan Mathews reminds me a lot of Shaun Alexander in the way Alexander used to be discussed in his prime. Alexander put up enormous numbers yet a lot of pundits would decry his ability to maintain elite levels. Their reasons were always nebulous, largely centered on a perception that Alexander somehow avoided contact at times, or wasn't generally "tough." Yet, you could set your watch to Alexander's greatness for half of a decade.

Shaun Alexander (2001-2005)

Year Age Rush RuYds RuTDs YPR Recs RecYds YPC RecTDs FPTs Rank
2001 24 309 1,318 14 4.3 44 343 7.8 2 262 4
2002 25 295 1,175 16 4.0 59 460 7.8 2 272 5
2003 26 326 1,435 14 4.4 42 295 7.0 2 269 6
2004 27 353 1,696 16 4.8 23 170 7.4 4 307 1
2005 28 370 1,880 27 5.1 15 78 5.2 1 364 1

Cue Ryan Mathews. I hear people besmirch Ryan Mathews all the time - for those same nebulous reasons. People imply he's not "tough" or doesn't "give it his all." But I don't see it. I see a guy that once he got the ball last year became a true fantasy star, and enters 2012 in his prime and the clear focal point of the San Diego offense. In an era where you can't come up with a list of 10 RBs that have even a shot at 300 carries, Mathews is to me among the most attractive options out there.

For the uninitiated, Mathews is a 25 year old, 6'0", 220 lbs. powerful back who came out of Fresno State and was given the unenviable task of being LaDainian Tomlinson's replacement in San Diego. His rookie season was...shall we say...uneven in that Mathews needed time absorbing the playbook and the conditioning needed to handle the rigors of the professional level. He showed glimpses (4.3 yards per rush, 7 rushing TDs) but didn't show us enough to think "FANTASTY STAR."

Last year started off much the way his rookie season left off. Many expected Mike Tolbert would enjoy a true time share with Mathews, and Week One seemingly reinforced that view. Tolbert touched the ball 21 times for 93 yards and three touchdowns, while Mathews had 15 touches for 128 yards and no scores. Unfortunately for Tolbert owners, and fortunately for Mathews owners, that time share didn't last very long. By the end of the season, Mathews had 272 touches for 1,546 yards and six touchdowns - which was good enough for a 7th place fantasy ranking.

The Table Is Set For Greatness
I've said for years that the key to fantasy greatness is the combination of ABILITY plus OPPORTUNITY. Mathews lacks for neither:

ABILITY - Last year Mathews averaged 4.9 yards per rush, among the best for backs with 200+ carries. More importantly, he averaged 3.2 yards after initial contact, which ranked 2nd only to Fred Jackson. He's got terrific vision, patience, and can make people miss (30 missed tackles in 13 starts - also near the top of the league). He also caught 50 receptions, making him the kind of dual threat that fantasy owners crave in their early rounds.

OPPORTUNITY - Today's NFL is a league defined by passing attacked and committees in the backfield. Over the last decade, an average of 10 running backs got 300+ carries per season. Last year it fell to just 5 backs. Mathews is going to get the opportunity to be one of those rare workhorses. Head coach Norv Turner is a long-standing proponent of a balanced, power running attack. Turner has shown a preference for using one runner throughout his coaching career. And with Mike Tolbert now in Carolina, there's no genuine threat to steal carries as long as Mathews stays healthy.

But What About Those Injuries?
Mathews has been nicked up at times in his first two seasons, but he's hardly a walking infirmary. In two seasons, Mathews has missed six games, and comes into this season in the best shape of his life [EDIT: Mathews was in a minor car accident early in camp, but should be fine beyond a few bruises]. For those unwilling to draft Mathews because of a perceived injury risk, I'm wondering which RBs they DO feel comfortable drafting? Arian Foster missed three games last year; Maurice Jones-Drew missed time in 2010 and then had major knee surgery. Darren McFadden has had one healthy year in four seasons. Matt Forte and DeMarco Murray missed time last year. You get the picture...running back is ALWAYS an injury risk, and Mathews is no more risky than anyone else at the top of the rankings.

Positives

  • Mathews emerged as a top 8 fantasy back last year in spite of missing a few games and getting off to a slow start. The light switch has gone on, he's in the best shape of his life, and has an opportunity to be a workhorse unlike most running backs in today's game
  • Philip Rivers remains an elite quarterback -- don't let last season's INTs fool you -- and teams will not be able to key on Mathews with regularity
  • Mathews has no weaknesses in his game. He's big, fast, strong, has good vision, and can catch the ball. Remember, he was 2nd in the NFL in yards after contact -- he's tough, even though uninformed pundits repeatedly tell you otherwise

Negatives

  • Mathews has missed six games in his first two seasons, and must put together a full season or be branded with the "fragile" label
  • The Chargers offensive line has to re-establish themselves as a premier run blocking unit
  • Last year Mathews fumbled the ball five times, he must take better care of the ball or the coaches will be forced to curtail his touches in key situations

Final thoughts

Shaun Alexander was always hated by a decent slug of fantasy football players. And savvy owners used that to their advantage. For four or five seasons I was able to draft Alexander in the mid- to late part of the first round, and reap the rewards. Ryan Mathews is shaping up to be the same guy. Once you get past Arian Foster, LeSean McCoy and Ray Rice, there is no running back with as clear a path to greatness -- yet it's rare you'll see Mathews mentioned as the 4th option. Use that to your advantage, and take him with confidence as a centerpiece of your 2012 season.


Quotations from the message board thread

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

Prussian said:

Mathews could be one of the only RBs left inthe league not looking at a RBBC related loss of carries. That, along with his talent, means stud potential. Two more considerations, the perceived drop in value of the WR corps after losing VJax, and the health risk associated with his performance last year. I expect Mathews to become the game-time manager for San Diego's game this year. Especially given the quick strike potential of teams like Denver and Oakland in the division.

fightingillini said:

My opinion on Mathews is simple. If he can stay healthy, he is an elite RB. In the category with Foster, Rice, McCoy, and MJD. Can do it all. Good speed, great vision, excellent receiver. Now without Tolbert and VJax in the mix, I suspect SD is going to go back to a more balanced offense....the one when SD had LT. IMO, the offense will go through Mathews more this year. I wouldn't hesitate to take him at #5-6 overall in a PPR league unless it's a 6 pt per TD pass league and Rodgers was available.

TheDirtyWord said:

While Mathews was one of the better pass catching RB's in the NFL in 2011, his counterpart Mike Tolbert, it could be argued was better. For 2012, that's neither here no there, but between the two of them...they accumulated 138 targets. The previous year, SD had Sproles as well. Between those 3, they had 130 targets. For the last two years, 1 out of every four targets have gone to primary RB's in SD passing game. The big outlier is Tolbert's increase in targets from 29 to 79 between 2010 & 2011. So it's quite possible Mathews won't be the primary beneficiary of Tolbert's (and Sproles) absense. But given his role in the offense, 80-85 targets seems like a reasonable projection and if he can do that...400 receiving yards seems like a floor for him.

The question will be if Mathews will approach 300 carries. Leron McClain was brought in to offset the loss of Tolbert. But he hasn't had a big workload in terms of carries since 2008 - with that said, he looks like a prototypical short yardage/goal line player. Jacob Hester hasn't amounted to much in his 4 NFL seasons (sporting a 3.4 YPC). Everyone else on the roster RB wise appears to be from hodgepodgeville. The drawback is that SD is a team that pretty much tops out at 450 rushes. And there could be a commitment to get Mathews in open space via the passing game versus milage producing runs through the LOS. I think the ceiling for him even with Tolbert gone is going to be 260 carries. Fact is, this is the first time in ages that the Chargers are sporting lackluster depth at RB. I think because of that, they'll be cognizant to not overwork a player whose durability/toughness is still a question mark. He could prove that wrong by Game 4, but I suspect McClain/Hester will carve out roles that were smaller than what Turner/Sproles/Tobert had done before them to ease Mathews workload. However, Mathews has clear sailing toward legitimate RB1 status, however, I could see him being drafted in a similar place with such numbers in 2013 because his projections seem to have already been built in to his draft value.

Just Win Baby said:

Let's look at RB usage under Norv Turner in San Diego:

2007:
San Diego RBs had 440/1987/18 (4.5 ypc) rushing and 83/550/4 (6.6 ypr) receiving on 120 targets.
LT was the workhorse, with 315/1474/15 rushing and 60/475/3 receiving on 86 targets.

2008:
San Diego RBs had 383/1564/13 (4.1 ypc) rushing and 105/1021/8 (9.7 ypr) receiving on 138 targets.
LT was still the workhorse, but faded significantly, with 292/1110/11 rushing and 52/426/1 receiving on 77 targets.
Sproles emerged as a threat in the passing game, with 29/342/5 (11.8 ypr) receiving on just 34 targets.
This was the season the passing game really exploded.

2009:
San Diego RBs had 385/1360/16 (3.5 ypc) rushing and 97/932/7 (9.6 ypr) receiving on 127 targets.
LT hit bottom and took the San Diego rushing game with him. He had just 223/730/12 (3.3 ypc) rushing and 20/154/0 receiving on 30 targets in 14 games.
Sproles continued to be strong in the passing game, with 45/497/4 (11.0 ypr) receiving on 57 targets.

2010:
San Diego RBs had 416/1743/18 (4.2 ypc) rushing and 127/998/3 (7.9 ypr) receiving on 154 targets.
LT was gone, Mathews was in and out of the lineup as a rookie, and Tolbert emerged.
Sproles continued to be the primary RB target in the passing game, but Tolbert and Mathews both showed potential there.

2011:
San Diego RBs had 400/1775/15 (4.4 ypc) and 123/977/3 (7.9 ypr) receiving on 165 targets.
Mathews broke out despite missing 2 games, with 222/1091/6 (4.9 ypr) rushing and 50/455/0 (9.1 ypr) receiving on 59 targets. Stud performance.
Sproles was gone, yet the RB targets were higher than ever. Tolbert had 79 targets in addition to Mathews' 59 targets.

Mathews showed last season that he is capable of top level RB play as both a rusher and receiver. The last time San Diego had a proven stud RB who was not in obvious decline was 2007. Despite the fact that they had both Michael Turner and Sproles on the bench, the Chargers gave Tomlinson 72% of the RB rushing attempts and 72% of the RB targets. In 2008, Michael Turner was gone and, even with LT fading, the Chargers gave him 76% of the RB rushing attempts.

I think those numbers are a reasonable starting point for Mathews this season, given that the Chargers have no RBs as talented as Michael Turner or Sproles or even Tolbert on their bench this season.

Given the lack of RB depth, I don't see the Chargers increasing last season's RB rushing attempts much, if at all, so I'll stick with 400 RB rushing attempts as a projection. This is right in line with their average under Turner, which is 405 per season. It's hard to see the RB targets staying as high as last season. I think 140, which is a 15% drop from last season, is a reasonable projection.

I think it's fair to assume Mathews will get 75% of the rushing attempts and 70% of the RB targets. That is 300 rushing attempts and 105 targets for Mathews.

Mathews averaged 4.3 ypc as a rookie and 4.9 ypc last season; his career average is 4.7 ypc. However, Mathews and Tolbert split short yardage carries last season (17 carries for Mathews with 2 yards or fewer to go, 22 carries for Tolbert); Mathews should get most or all of these carries this year, which should reduce his ypc a bit. Combine that with an expected increase in usage, and I think it's reasonable to project 4.5 ypc.

In his career, Mathews has caught 72 of 85 targets (85%), which is quite impressive. Last year, he caught 50 of 59 targets, again right at 85%. I think this might go down a bit given a bit more attention from the defense and perhaps due to increased usage, so I'll estimate 75%, which I think is pretty conservative.

Mathews averaged 6.6 ypr as a rookie and 9.1 ypr last season; his career average is 8.3 ypr. In this case, I think last year is more indicative of his ability as a receiver, improvement in his comfort level with and understanding of the passing game, and the team finding better ways to utilize his talent. That said, I think using his career average is reasonably conservative.

As for rushing TDs, Mathews has 13 rushing TDs on 379 rushing attempts, which is 1 TD every 29 carries. On 300 rushing attempts, that projects to 10 rushing TDs.

However, consider rushing attempts near the goal line. Over the past 2 seasons, Mathews only had 19 rushing attempts at the opponent's 10 yard line and closer, compared to 51 rushing attempts for Tolbert. Mathews had 6 rushing TDs on those 19 carries; Tolbert had 18 rushing TDs on his 51 carries. Mathews will be getting most or all of these carries this year, meaning another 20+ carries near the goal line. He is in line to double his TDs in the red zone.

Meanwhile, only McCoy has had more rushing TDs from outside the opponent's 10 yard line over the past 2 seasons than Mathews. So I am seeing a big uptick in rushing TDs.

San Diego has had no fewer than 3 RB receiving TDs per season under Turner, and it seems reasonable to project Mathews to get one.

So, put it all together, and here is my projection: 300/1350/14 (4.5 ypc) rushing and 79/656/1 (8.3 ypr) receiving.

Obviously, this assumes he plays 16 games. I realize many don't think he can do that, but I think he will show an ability to stay on the field this year through the minor injuries, and I never attempt to project major injuries, since I believe them to be unpredictable.


Ryan Mathews projections

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