Ripping it off like a Band-aid: drafting Ryan Mathews

Ryan Mathews being helped off the field

Ryan Mathews: your weekly starter at Injured Reserve?

It’s Round 5 in your draft.  Take a  hard look at your roster and what do you have, what do you need?  You probably have a running back or two, a wide receiver or two, maybe a luxury quarterback or Jimmy Graham?  The next pick will go a long way toward shaping your strategy for the latter rounds; what do you do?  If you decide now is the time to grab another running back, close your eyes and tear it off like a Band-aid: Ryan Mathews is your man.

Believe it or not, this is Ryan Mathews’ fourth year in the league.  We still don’t know what to make of him.  The buzz on Ryan Mathews this year could not be more different than what it was last year.  Last year, Ryan Mathews was a sexy upside pick.  Drafters were excited to call his name.  This year, it will be more of a whimper.

Last season, the San Diego halfback was the focus of an unbelievable amount of hype.  Camp reports were calling him “rocked up” and “in the best shape of his life”.  In early drafts, he was routinely being taken in the first round – sometimes, the early first round.  Then he broke his collarbone and his ADP tanked to the second or third round, causing many to view him as a value pick.

But that didn’t work out, either.  Plain and simple, if you drafted him last year, no matter where you drafted him, you did not get your money back, and you probably came to the decision that he is a roller coaster unworthy of a second ride.

Chances are, you already know the reasons why you should avoid Ryan Mathews on Draft Day: his injury proneness, his supposed lack of dedication to football and  penchant for trawling nightclubs, a new coaching staff, and the fact that ex-Pat Danny Woodhead emigrated from New England to supplant him on third downs.  These are legitimate concerns; but when shopping for running backs in the fifth round, you take what you can get.  According to  ADP data by fantasyfootballcalculator.com, this is what you can get: Ahmad Bradshaw, Mathews and Eddie Lacy.

So let’s think about some of the main arguments against Mathews:

Injury history: This is the big one, and okay, the guy has not played a full season in the NFL.  He did play in 14 games in 2011 and has played in 12 games in his other two years.  I don’t regard him as an excessive injury risk in a league where one awkward footfall can end a season.  The fact that he broke his collarbone last year on the very first carry of his preseason has made him a bit of a running joke, and folk hero posterboy for football players who are made of glass.  But the season is comprised of many carries; and after he came back from that fluky broken collarbone, he held up pretty well.

Pecking order: The commonly held notion is that Mathews will be a two-down runner, capping his upside.  Danny Woodhead will handle third downs and passing situations; Ronnie Brown will be the plowman at the goal-line.  Maybe that’s the idea now, but things change.  Ryan Mathews is clearly the most talented member of this incipient committee.  Should he succeed similarly to how he did in 2012 when he averaged 4.9 YPC, I have no doubt that we will see an expanded role.

New coaching staff: This is more anecdotal than anything but having seen many Chargers games over the last few seasons, I have found Norv Turner’s playcalling to be uncreative and frustrating.  Yes, I know he’s regarded as a great offensive mind but NFL coaches have a built-in shelf life.  I view this coaching change as more positive than negative and believe the San Diego offense as a whole will be improved.

Motivation: I can’t possibly comment on the degree to which this affects his abilities as a football player.  This is entirely on Ryan Mathews.  He understands that this is his fourth year in the league, that he’s in a position to play his way into a Felix Jones-type career or earn a big free agent paycheck.  Is the motivation there?  Impossible to know, but it’s difficult to believe Mathews himself doesn’t realize the importance of shedding the bust label in a hurry.

In sum, I do prefer Ryan Mathews over Ahmad Bradshaw and Eddie Lacy.  Mathews and Bradshaw each have durability questions with  RB2/Flex upside — between those two, it’s close, but I think Mathews is the more talented runner with fewer lingering health questions and a better chance to realize that ceiling (yes, really).  Lacy in the fifth round, to me, is a major reach.  He has injury questions of his own and the upside isn’t high enough in a pass-first offense that likes to give goal-line carries to John Kuhn.

In the comments below: which of these three would you take, and why?

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