Ryan Mathews has gone from Rookie of the Year candidate to an afterthought for many fantasy owners in just one season. Sure, Mathews struggled at times in his first season and certainly did not live up to his lofty average draft position. However, it is shortsighted to write Mathews off completely just because he did not live up to expectations. In fact, upon a closer inspection of the numbers, Mathews was still one of the most efficient running backs on a per play basis. The numbers are not that evident in looking just at the box scores, but that is why our PFF Premium Statistics can help us see another side of the story.
I am going to use the data from Ryan Mathews’ rookie season to show you why he is on my must-draft list in 2011 and should be on yours too.
Ryan Mathews vs. Mike Tolbert
Before I get started with how Mathews compared to the other running backs in the NFL last year, I want to first compare him side by side against Mike Tolbert to dispel some misconceptions. Ryan Mathews would have been the Chargers featured back all year if he did not suffer a high-ankle sprain in Week 2 versus Jacksonville. Tolbert only got his extended look because of the injury to Mathews. Not to take anything away from Tolbert, because he excelled in short-yardage when given the chance (11 rushing touchdowns), but Mathews received the majority of the playing time when he was healthy. Mathews missed 4 games due to injury, but was the featured back in 6 games that Tolbert also participated in, not including Week 17 against Denver. Mathews split playing time while he was not 100 percent healthy with the ankle sprain.
We know that Tolbert edged out Mathews in total fantasy points scored on the strength of his 11 rushing touchdowns but was he really that much more effective that Mathews?
Here is a breakdown of each player’s fantasy points per snap and fantasy points per rushing attempt and pass route run:
Mathews barely edged out his teammate in PPR leagues despite playing 90 less snaps and scoring 4 less touchdowns. Taking away all touchdowns scored (*), Mathews edged out Tolbert by a more significant margin. Mathews’ 7 touchdowns accounted for 31% of his fantasy points scored while Tolbert’s 11 touchdowns accounted for 37% of his fantasy points. Tolbert is a lock to regress to fewer touchdowns in 2011.
Ryan Mathews struggled as a pass blocker; there is no way to dispute that fact. Many rookies struggle in this aspect of their game because it is not a skill they are often asked to practice in college. Mathews graded out as our 9th worst pass-blocking running back in 2010 (-2.7), but he had some distinguished company:
|Adrian L. Peterson||MIN||686||-6.8|
|Chris D. Johnson||TEN||826||-6.8|
The first three names on this list may come as a shock to many. This also shows that struggling as a pass blocker is not the kiss of death to running backs in fantasy football.
Because of his struggles, Mathews was not asked to pass block often. What we can also see from breaking down the Chargers’ running back and fullback data from last season is that Norv Turner does not use his running backs to block much.
|Pos.||Name||Snaps||Opp||Block||Run||Pass||Run Block||Pass Block|
While Mathews blocked the least amount of time, Darren Sproles and Tolbert did not block at much higher of a percentage. Also for comparison sake, Mathews was one of the league leaders in blocking the least amount of time with more distinguished company:
|Chris D. Johnson||HB||827||16.08%|
I teased it earlier in the article, but Mathews was one of the most effective running backs on a per play basis last year. In fact, he tied Chiefs superstar Jamaal Charles for the league lead with 0.48 fantasy points per snap for running backs with at least 200 snaps played. Here is a look at the top-30 running backs in PPR leagues on a per play basis:
|Adrian L. Peterson||HB||275.9||6||0.40||0.48||688|
|Chris D. Johnson||HB||273.8||7||0.33||0.39||827|
You will notice that Mathews appears twice on this list. He led all running backs in fantasy points per snap last year. Some might argue that his Week 17 performance against Denver (120 yards rushing, 3 TD, 3 receptions for 19 yards) propelled him to the top of the chart. It did, but even without his Week 17 performance, he still would have ranked 6th (*).
Fantasy points per snap can be a useful tool but it does have its limitations. While the top-10 fantasy scorers are represented in this chart, there are several specialists or players that received extended playing time due to injury. At the very least, this chart shows that Mathews would have had more fantasy success with more playing time.
Despite some of the hype Mathews has generated he is still undervalued in fantasy leagues. I have previously recommend Mathews as a dynasty buy in March and May and he checks in at 19th overall in our Top-150 players. Mathews’ ADP is currently 27th overall, so while he is undervalued, he is not a bargain. Mathews is one of the best bets of any of the running backs available in the third round in early drafts to finish in the top-10 this year. Norv Turner has a history of featuring talented running backs in his offense including Emmitt Smith, Stephen Davis, Ricky Williams, Frank Gore and of course LaDainian Tomlinson.
If you were a Ryan Mathews doubter before reading this, I hope that I have at least given you a few additional things to think about. We are not talking about a slouch of a running back here. Mathews was drafted 12th overall last year and is likely to be the featured back on the top-ranked offense in the NFL this year. Mathews is primed for a breakout season and should be on your must draft list this year.
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