The news that Ryan Mathews broke his collarbone in the Chargers’ first preseason game and could be out through the first two weeks of the regular season has sent his draft stock sinking like a stone. Before Thursday’s game, Mathews was going around the 1st/2nd round turn. Now he can be had much later – I’ve seen him go as late as the 4th round in some mock drafts. Sure, Mathews is risky and no one wants to sink an early pick on a player who’s already banged up. But with the sad state of running backs this year, getting a guy with Mathews’ upside in the late 2nd or early 3rd round could really put you ahead of the pack.
A lot went wrong for Ryan Mathews last year and he still managed to end the season as a top 10 fantasy back. Mathews was sidelined for two games with leg injuries that never really healed completely and played a good chunk of the year at less than 100%. Health issues aside, he had to fight touchdown vulture Mike Tolbert for receptions and carries in the Bolts backfield. Tolbert reached pay dirt 10 times, eating away at Mathews’ fantasy value. With the deck stacked against him, Mathews was still one of the best backs in fantasy. He doesn’t need to play 16 games to turn in a stellar fantasy year.
Is the outlook for Mathews really worse than last year? The fact that we’re talking about a collarbone injury and not a lower body one makes it more likely that when he gets back on the field he’ll be the same Ryan Mathews and won’t be saddled with the type of nagging dings that keep a back from going full throttle. Last year, the Saints’ Marques Colston suffered a similar injury early in the season and was back on the field after missing only 2 games, none the worse for wear. Running backs tend to take more punishment than wide receivers, but giving Mathews 4 preseason weeks and up to 2 regular season weeks off should allow him to achieve what Colston did.
Once Mathews gets back on the field, he should go right back to being the only show in town. Tolbert moved on to Carolina during the offseason and the Chargers replaced him with an aging Ronnie Brown, fullback LeRon McClain and Kansas City washout Jackie Battle. Brown logged career lows in yards, yards per carry and touchdowns in Philly last year and all signs point to there not being much left in his tank. McClain is in San Diego as a fullback. Coach Norv Turner wants him to have a role in the offense, but he won’t be assuming regular tailback duties. Battle could hold down the fort for a few weeks, but he showed last season in Kansas City that he doesn’t have what it takes to be an every down back. A young guy in camp could certainly carve out a role on this team, but whoever it is will just be keeping the seat warm for Mathews. Head coach Norv Turner indicated as much by stating right away that the Bolts wouldn’t be looking to pick up another running back in the wake of the Mathews injury.
When Mathews was healthy, he was being taken as the 6th or 7th running back off the board in most drafts. Now you can get him as the 12th or 13th back. Who leapfrogs him based on the injury news? I’ve seen Darren McFadden, Marshawn Lynch, Jamaal Charles, Adrian Peterson, DeMarco Murray and Steven Jackson all sneak ahead of him in drafts and on expert rankings. Each one of these guys is littered with question marks and could easily miss more time this year than Mathews:
- McFadden has never played more than 13 games in a season in his 4 year NFL career.
- Lynch was recently arrested on suspicion of DUI and, given his report offender status, could easily lose a few games to suspension.
- Jamaal Charles and Adrian Peterson are both coming off season-ending ACL injuries, which typically prevent a running back from returning to his old form until his second year back. Charles will have to fight Peyton Hillis for touchdowns and carries. Peterson will have to contend with Toby Gerhardt who, if you only look at games in which Peterson did not play, was on pace to be a top 10 fantasy back last year. Gerhardt has earned a larger chunk of carries in Minnesota and could be used extensively, especially early in the year when Peterson is less than 100% and the Vikings want to limit his risk of re-injury.
- DeMarco Murray has an injury history stretching all the way back to his college days at Oklahoma.
- Steven Jackson turned 29 this summer and seems to have been slowing down over the least few seasons.
At the end of the day, Mathews is the same guy he was a week ago. He’s an explosive back with injury concerns who could get you as many of 14 weeks of solid fantasy production. Last year that was good enough to be a top 10 back. This year only time will tell. But if Mathews can repeat last year’s 14 game production, possibly increasing his touchdown total to boot, a lot of owners are going to be kicking themselves for overlooking him on draft day.