Ryan Mathews doesn’t have many strikes left. He’s been given every chance to establish himself as an upper-echelon running back. The Chargers traded up in the 1st round to draft him at #12 overall back in 2010. He opened his pro career in a time-share with RBs Mike Tolbert and Darren Sproles. Mathews went for 678 yards and seven touchdowns on 158 carries – a 4.3-yard average; but a high-ankle sprain cost him 4 games.
Injuries continued to be a problem in 2011. He took over as the feature back but was hampered by foot, calf, wrist, thumb, groin and knee problems. He missed two games and was limited in a few others. Mathews still racked up 1,546 total yards and 6 TDs that year, finishing 7th among RBs in fantasy points.
2012 brought Mathews’ biggest opportunity yet, with TD vulture Mike Tolbert out of the picture. But injuries plagued Mathews again. It started in the preseason opener with a broken right collarbone. That sidelined him through the first two games of the regular season. He injured his neck in November but didn’t miss any time. Then in Week 15, Mathews broke his left collarbone. That ended his season.
So just how rare is it for a player to break both collarbones in a 4-month span? “If you look at shoulder injuries in football, clavicular fractures are generally low-incident injuries. And this guy’s had two of them in four months,” a doctor told the San Diego Union-Tribune. “If you were to ask me four months ago, ‘Do you think he’s going to break his left clavicle?’ I would have said he’s more likely to be struck by lightning.” The doc added that Mathews isn’t more likely to injure either collarbone again than he was before.
Still, it’s getting tougher and tougher to avoid slapping this guy with an “injury-prone” tag. He’s missed 10 of his first 48 games with a variety of bumps and bruises.
Ball-security has also been an issue for Mathews. He put the ball on the turf 10 times across his first two NFL seasons. A Week 3 fumble last year sent him to the bench the following Sunday. The good news: Mathews fumbled just once more the rest of the way.
He really struggled even when he was on the field last year, though. He finished with just 3.8 yards per carry and 6.5 yards per catch — both career lows. Mathews scored just once all season, although it’s tough to blame him considering he saw just 2 carries from inside the 10-yard line and none from inside the 5. But he also had just 1 run for more than 20 yards – a 31-yarder against the Chiefs in Week 9.
2012 was a season that made us question whether Mathews will ever live up to the hype.
He’ll get at least 1 more chance in 2013. New Chargers GM Tom Telesco has consistently praised Mathews since taking over. Telesco has called him a “bellcow” and a “playmaker,” adding that he expects “big things” this season.
Of course, words mean very little. But the Chargers have thrown their support behind Mathews by only adding Danny Woodhead to the backfield. He, along with Ronnie Brown, figures to siphon 3rd-down and pass-catching work. But Mathews will once again be the clear lead back in San Diego.
He’ll work with a new coaching staff in 2013 in HC Mike McCoy and OC Ken Whisenhunt. Both guys have shown the ability to adapt their offenses to the personnel. McCoy favored the pass in Denver with QBs Kyle Orton and Peyton Manning. But with Tim Tebow in 2011, the Broncos finished 1st in rush attempts and dead last in passes.
Whisenhunt has been to both extremes of play-calling. As Pittsburgh’s offensive coordinator in 2004 and 2005, with a young Ben Roethlisberger, he went run-heavy. The Steelers finished both of those seasons 1st in rush attempts and 32nd in passes. In 2006, they ran a balanced attack, finishing 14th in both categories.
As the Cardinals’ head coach, Whiz favored the pass. His offenses finished no lower than 15th in pass attempts across six seasons. They ranked no higher than 25th in rushes. Arizona finished dead last in rush attempted four times during Whisenhunt’s tenure.
There are two big concerns with Mathews. First, the injury history, which we’ve gone over in detail. Mathews has yet to prove capable of making it through a 16-game NFL season. If you draft him to your fantasy squad, you should do so expecting him to miss time.
The offensive line is just as big an issue. Pro Football Focus ranked the unit 28th in run-blocking last year. Football Outsiders had it 23rd. As a team, the Chargers averaged just 3.6 yards per carry – tied for 2nd worst in the league.
The O-line doesn’t project to be much better in 2013. Gone is guard Louis Vasquez, who was the unit’s best player last year, according to PFF. He’ll be replaced by free-agent addition Chad Rinehart, who sat 37th among guards in PFF’s 2012 run-blocking rankings.
The left side will be manned by a couple more new guys in tackle King Dunlap and guard Rich Ohrnberger. Both received negative run-blocking ratings from PFF last year.
The only spot on the line that figures to be better is right tackle. That spot will be taken over by rookie 1st-round pick D.J. Fluker, a mauling 6’5, 339-pounder. Still, this looks like one of the weakest offensive lines in the league heading into 2013.’
Even behind that shaky O-line, Matthews has been impressive this preseason. He has rushed for 64 yards on only 12 carries, combined against the Bears and Seahawks. His yards per carry average currently sits at a gaudy 5.33. Matthews and the rest of the first team offense will probably see extended time in week 3 of the preseason. This means that with another good game, Matthews could be setting himself up for a bounce-back year in 2013 (provided he stays healthy).
Draft Sharks Bottom Line:
The Chargers haven’t given up on Mathews just yet. Fantasy owners shouldn’t either. He’s still worth targeting in drafts – at the right price.
The best part about Mathews this year is that he’ll come much cheaper. He was a major letdown for teams that selected him in the 2nd or 3rd round last summer. But he figures to be available in the 5th round or later in 2013 fantasy football drafts. That’s a fair price for a clear-cut lead back who’s only 25 years old and sports a career 4.4 yards-per-carry average.
This story originally appeared in Draft Sharks
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