Chargers second-year running back Ryan Mathews
is brimming with talent. The top-rated rusher on A.J. Smith's 2010 draft board, Mathews so enamored the Chargers' GM that Smith traded the No. 28 overall pick, a second-round selection, and a fourth-rounder to the Dolphins to select LaDainian Tomlinson
's nominal successor with the 12th pick in last year's draft.
Mathews dragged through an injury-plagued, forgettable rookie season. He suffered a high right ankle sprain in Week 2 and an elbow injury in practice leading up to Week 4, culminating in a reduced early-season role. Chargers coaches didn't trust Mathews in blitz pickup, so he almost never played on passing downs and was on the bench in favor of Mike Tolbert
or Darren Sproles
when the team played from behind. Mathews aggravated the ankle injury in Week 9. He wasn't healthy until Week 17, when Tolbert was out and Mathews racked up 26 percent of his fantasy points for the season -- against a Broncos team that ranked 31st against the run and 32nd in total defense.
Tolbert was a more reliable and effective player all year. A toolsy former fullback, Tolbert is much better than Mathews in the passing game, which comes in awfully handy for a Chargers offense that leans on the pass. Sproles' departure in free agency (expected since last winter) meant a bigger role for Tolbert on passing downs, so we were surprised to see other websites relentlessly hype Mathews as a surefire breakout candidate all offseason.
It's a long shot.
We charted each of Mathews' 20 preseason snaps, and he hasn't played on a single third down or in an obvious passing situation. Mathews has been asked to execute just one blitz pickup, cutting a Cowboys defender on a first-and-ten play Sunday night. Tolbert has remained the Chargers' primary back deep in the red zone, with Mathews having yet to see any action inside an opponent's seven-yard line. The coaching staff simply doesn't trust Mathews to block oncoming blitzers, and prefers Tolbert at the stripe.
Mathews remains an integral part of San Diego's offense as a between-the-twenties early-down back, but Tolbert will siphon away critical scoring and receiving value. As much as we'd like to see Mathews succeed -- he's an explosive, big-play runner with elite acceleration and balance -- the sophomore is engulfed in a full-fledged running back committee that puts a heavy lid on his fantasy upside.
Mathews is staring in the face several empty, 17-carry, 75-yard kinds of games with no touchdowns and one or two catches. His current ADP is the middle of round four, which is too rich for our tastes. Mathews is a low-end RB2. We wouldn't take him before the last few picks of round five.
Check out Gregg Rosenthal's analysis on Mathews: