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Ryan Mathews: Taking The Calcualted Risk

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Can Ryan Mathews shake the injury prone label, and finally live up to his fantasy potential in 2013? Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images
Can Ryan Mathews shake the injury prone label, and finally live up to his fantasy potential in 2013? Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images

Often I hear fantasy football compared to poker, and in the movie Rounders, the main character Mike McDermott says, "Few players recall big pots they have won, strange as it seems, but every player can remember with remarkable accuracy the outstanding tough beats of his career. It seems true to me, cause walking in here, I can hardly remember how I built my bankroll, but I can't stop thinking of how I lost it.” This holds true in fantasy as well. There is some unmistakable, psychological effect that a player who continually under-performs creates. In turn, that makes you disown or cast them aside, vowing never to drat that player again no matter what the circumstances. For some, I can understand the reasoning and know how hard it is to draft someone that was a direct contributor to a failed fantasy football season, but for me I try to block this out. I truly believe that every player, regardless of how bad they played in previous years, has a justified draft spot and can be rostered, as unsettling as this may be for most owners. It all comes down to risk and reward, and for me, of all the players that are shoved in this category, there is one that should be given more credit. A top prospect out of college, a first round draft pick in 2010, and a highly valued fantasy player up until last year, Ryan Mathews is the epitome of "the player that burned you." The biggest knock on Mathews is his durability and his lack of production. Let's look at his situation this year, and maybe we can shake the horrible memories of 2012.

College Production and Combine Results:  Mathews was a highly-regarded talent that the Chargers must have had their eyes on from the beginning. Mathews played just north of San Diego in Fresno, where he racked up 1,808 yards on 276 carries averaging 6.6 yards per carry and scored 19 touchdowns. Not only was Mathews productive, but he had an impressive combine, seen below and matched with the three rookie running backs who are currently being drafted ahead of Mathews. It is important to note, I don't hold combine scores as an absolute in terms of NFL ability or potential production, but it is interesting to see that he would have topped most of the running back's in this class at the combine.

Player  Combine Year Height  Weight 40 Yard Dash  Bench Press (225 lbs)  Vertical Jump 20 Yard Shuttle
Ryan Mathews 2010 6'0" 218 lbs 4.45 seconds 19 repetitions  36 inches 4.33 seconds 
Le'Veon Bell 2013 6'1" 230 lbs 4.60 seconds 24 repetitions  31.5 inches 4.24 seconds 
Montee Ball  2013 5'10" 214 lbs 4.66 seconds  15 repetitions  32 inches  4.40 seconds 
Eddie Lacy  2013 5'11" 231 lbs 4.59 seconds N/A N/A N/A

Coaching Changes: One of the biggest issues Mathews had upon his arrival to San Diego was his relationship with the former coaching staff. Mathews stated his disgust in an interview on NFL Network after the 2012 season once Norv Turner was gone, saying the coaching staff got complacent and practices were routine with no sense of urgency. Mathews also stated that the offense was complicated under Turner, and that he was looking forward to what new offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt and new head coach Mike McCoy have in store. Mathews assumes the change means a heavier running attack, although neither McCoy or Whisenhunt came from great running teams in 2012. This interview may have made Mathews look like a bad guy, but it is possible that there was a lack of effort and sense of urgency in San Diego and a coaching change and fresh start will help.

Injury History: The biggest knock on Mathews is his injury history, is this justified? What qualifies a player as injury prone? His first carry in the 2012 preseason was a disaster where he his cracked collar bone. You could hear fantasy owners everywhere sobbing. Mathews was still drafted in late-preseason drafts, as this was only supposed to keep him out four to five weeks at the most. In the end, Mathews missed a ton of time last year and was ultimately put on the injury reserve list after he failed to fully recover and the Chargers lost any chance of making the playoffs. I know why this concerns people, we are starting to see a trend, and not only did these injuries occur, they sidelined him for an extended period of time in which he really never recovered. It seems that this was a freak injury much like Danny Amendola's broken clavicle, but we aren't hearing the same concerns about him, why? Well, if this was an isolated incident, I would say there really shouldn't be a worry mostly due to the nature of the injury, as a running back's legs and knees are the most important part of their success. However, this history stems all the way back into college, and Mathews has yet to play a full season at 100 percent. I completely understand the concerns with Mathews, but there are running backs who are being drafted way ahead of Mathews that carry the same injury risk such as DeMarco Murray, Matt Forte and Darren McFadden. I try not to focus too much on injury history when making decisions because this is football and unfortunately injuries are going to happen. I think the majority of Mathews injuries were due to conditioning problems, and from the looks of things in OTAs and preseason, he appears to be in excellent shape.

Competition and Offensive Makeup: The Chargers made a few moves in the offseason of note but have also had their share of frustrations. The three things that Mathews has going for him are an improved offensive line, lack of competition and the depletion of depth and talent at wide receiver. The Chargers, with their first pick in the 2013 NFL draft, selected offensive tackle D.J. Fluker from Alabama to help shore up a very porous offensive line that struggled to open holes and give Phillip Rivers time in 2012. The rookie might not make a huge impact, but what we've seen is a line that is effectively running a solid zone blocking scheme that fits Mathews one-cut run style, as he isn't great in space but has shown patience and improved vision behind the line.

The big signing in the backfield for the Chargers this offseason was former New England Patriot running back Danny Woodhead, and although he excels where Mathews struggles (in the passing game) his role will be limited, and Woodhead is dealing with his own share of injuries. The Chargers backfield is also comprised of aging and underwhelming Ronnie Brown and two very inexperienced backs in Fozzy Whittaker and Michael Hill. Mathews has very little competition, and the door is wide open for him in what should be a run heavy offense.

To say the Chargers passing game is in trouble is an understatement. With the issues of finding a left tackle, the loss of deep threat Denario Alexander, an aging Antonio Gates, and the majority of the receivers banged up, the Chargers are going to need to get themselves in a lot of short yardage situations, and the best way to do that is to effectively run the ball. Coach McCoy will do everything he can to establish the run early, making Mathews a valuable asset as he is by far the best option for the Chargers to grind out tough yards.

2013 Average Draft Position: One of my main arguments for drafting Ryan Mathews this year is his current average draft position (data taken from fantasyfootballcalculator.com for the month of August). When compared to his second round ADP of 2012, his new ADP of 5.03 is extremely interesting, and it kind of surprises me when I look at the players that are being taken near him compared to last year. Keep in mind these ADP statistics are for standard or non-PPR formats, so players like Darren Sproles and Shane Vereen lose value.

2012 ADP Player Position Team 2013 ADP Player Position Team
2.03 Maurice Jones-Drew RB JAC 3.12 Le'Veon Bell RB PIT
2.04 Marshawn Lynch RB SEA 3.12 David Wilson RB NYG
2.06 Jamaal Charles RB KC 4.02 Darren Sproles RB NO
2.06 Adrian Peterson RB MIN 4.05 Eddie Lacy RB GB
2.08 Fred Jackson RB BUF 5.03 Montee Ball RB DEN
2.08 Ryan Mathews RB SD 5.03 Ryan Mathews RB SD
2.1 Steven Jackson RB STL 5.07 Giovani Bernard RB CIN
3.01 Doug Martin RB TB 5.10 Christopher Ivory RB NYJ
3.05 Trent Richardson RB CLE 5.11 Ahmad Bradshaw RB IND
3.06 Darren Sproles RB NO 6.01 Shane Vereen RB NE
3.09 Michael Turner RB ATL 6.02 Daryl Richardson RB STL

I'm not writing this to tell you that Mathews is in for a career year. In fact, I think that's very unlikely, but when you factor in his draft position and talent level, the reward far outweighs the risk. When a lead running back, regardless of injury history, is being taken around the same point as running backs with uncertain roles and less talent, it's a situation you have to jump on. With Mathews as a flex or third running back option, this is the type of pick that can set you apart from the rest of the league and take yo to the championship. To quote Rounders again, "You can't lose what you don't put in the middle, but you can't win much either." Fantasy is about taking calculated risks and for me the numbers point to this being a risk worth taking.