I know, I know. He's injury prone. He's a disappointment. He fumbles too much. He reported to camp out of shape.
Third-year tailback Ryan Mathews hasn't met expectations inherent for the 12th pick in the draft. No one knows better than the Chargers. GM A.J. Smith surrendered a small bounty to trade up for Mathews three Aprils ago, and so far the organization has largely seen only flashes of potential.
But they're buying in now, and fantasy football owners should, too. Here's why:
1. Mathews is already a really good fantasy back.
There's a perception that Mathews is a tease at best and a bust at worst, and that was true during his rookie campaign (2010). He had one of the quietest breakout years in the league last season.
Despite missing two games and portions of others, Mathews finished the 2011 season as the No. 7 fantasy running back. He scored more fantasy points than Adrian Peterson, Steven Jackson, Frank Gore, Matt Forte, and Chris Johnson. Over Mathews' last 16 games, he's piled up 1,266 yards and ten touchdowns on 260 carries (4.87 YPC), to go with 56 catches for 502 yards. By that measure, Mathews would have been a top-five fantasy back over the course of last season.
2. Mathews is set up to contend for the league lead in touches.
As alluded to above, the Chargers know Mathews' strengths and weaknesses better than anyone. Yet they let committee partner Mike Tolbert walk for a below-market deal in Carolina, and didn't sign a replacement. Coach Norv Turner has talked up Le'Ron McClain as second in line for touches. A fullback, McClain has exceeded 50 single-season rushing attempts once in five years. San Diego's only other noteworthy backfield addition was seventh-round pick Edwin Baker, who lost his starting job to sophomore Le'Veon Bell at Michigan State last year.
Tolbert's departure frees up goal-line and passing-down work that is so crucial for feature backs to maximize fantasy value. And we have a decent sample size to examine Mathews when he's been the go-to guy.
Be it due to injury or game plan, Tolbert played 20 or fewer snaps in eight games over the past two seasons. In those games, Mathews capitalized for 149 combined carries, 645 rushing yards, 19 receptions, and 145 receiving yards. And he scored eight TDs. Double those numbers, and you have a realistic -- maybe even slightly conservative -- projection for Mathews' 2012 statistics.
Which leads into my next point ...
3. Norv Turner believes in every-down workhorses.
We haven't seen it the past two years because Mathews has underachieved and Tolbert was so good, but the Chargers' coach has a long, documented history of feeding the football to his top back relentlessly. In Turner's 21 years as an NFL head coach or coordinator, his No. 1 running back has exceeded 270 carries 14 times, and 300 carries on 10 occasions. Over the course of Turner's coaching career, his lead back has averaged 282 carries and 43 catches per season. Turner not only believes in bellcow ball carriers, he involves them heavily in the passing game.
Last season, Philip Rivers completed 123 passes to tailbacks -- the highest total in football. A few of this year's running back receptions will be sprinkled amongst McClain, Jacob Hester, and Curtis Brinkley or Baker, but Mathews is going to be one of the most oft-targeted backs in the league.
4. The Chargers' offense will move the ball this season.
In 2011 -- by all accounts a down year for Turner's offense -- the Chargers ranked sixth in the league in total yards, tied for fifth in points scored, sixth in passing, and 16th in rushing. Turner annually fields an offensive juggernaut. Turner's team has ranked in the top 11 in total offense in four straight seasons. That's a reliable track record when it comes to fantasy football investment.
I try to avoid jumping to conclusions based strictly on prior year stats, though, and there is offseason turnover in San Diego to consider. Schematically, Robert Meachem may actually prove a superior fit for Turner's vertical offense than outgoing top wideout Vincent Jackson. Whereas V-Jax was a buildup speed receiver, Meachem is a true burner on the outside. And from a blocking standpoint, San Diego won't lose much. Meachem was always regarded as the Saints' top blocking wideout.
Turner also plans to use the slot receiver more. Historically a two-wideout coach, Turner can look to promising second-year man Vincent Brown or $13.5 million free-agent pickup Eddie Royal to work the middle of the field, along with Antonio Gates. When teams put more receivers on the field, it forces defenses to adjust into nickel alignments. And those are easier to run against.
5. Mathews appears physically and mentally ready for a leap.
Mathews openly admits his fitness wasn't up to par at the start of 2011 training camp, after the lockout. Mathews didn't just fail his conditioning test to open camp, he couldn't even finish it. And he's holding himself accountable.
“You just know you’re letting guys down,” Mathews told the Union-Tribune San Diego last week. “Guys are looking at you and saying, ‘Come on.’ It’s hard, man. You got to live with yourself the next couple weeks or days just thinking about it. ‘They did it. Why couldn’t I?’
“I didn’t have the offseason workout like I’ve had this year. I really didn’t know what to expect. This year, it’s going to be a lot different.”
Hearing it from Mathews is one thing. Hearing it from team captain Hester is another.
“You should see him with his shirt off,” said Hester, Mathews' workout partner this year. “He looks like Arnold back in the day. We’ve been pushing each other. Shoot, I’ve tried to kill him a couple times. He’s held with it. He’s gone every step with me ...
“I can’t stress how hard he’s been working. I expect him to be great. I really do.”
Turner recently suggested that Mathews is capable of leading the league in rushing.
I wouldn't put it past him.