San Diego running back Ryan Mathews broke his collarbone on his first carry in Thursday night’s preseason game against Green Bay and is expected to be out between 4-6 weeks. With that diagnosis, the hope is that Mathews will be able to play at the latest by Week 3.
Mathews, who rushed for 1,091 yards with six touchdowns in 2011, appeared to be poised for an even bigger year in 2012 with the Chargers losing backup running back Mike Tolbert to the Carolina Panthers in free agency. Now, the coaching staff’s attention will turn to who will get the carries in Mathews’ absence, while fantasy owners figure out what to do regarding his draft status.
Fantasy-wise, all signs were pointing to a breakout year for the third-year pro, especially with Tolbert no longer around to vulture touchdowns. Tolbert scored 19 touchdowns combined the last two seasons, while Mathews had a total of 13 during that same span.
For all intents and purposes, it appeared that Mathews was going to become the league’s next workhorse back, a rarity these days, which had his fantasy value at an all-time high. Preseason fantasy rankings have Mathews as high as sixth among running backs and certainly among the top 10 overall.
This latest injury, however, also highlights one of the biggest criticisms when it comes to Mathews – durability. Mathews has missed time in each of his first two seasons, two games last year and four in 2001, because of different injuries. While this latest, a broken collarbone, doesn’t necessarily cement a “brittle” reputation for him, the fact that he’s looking at missing the first two weeks of the season, if not longer, certainly needs to be addressed when it comes to his draft value.
That said, I for one, am taking the optimistic approach with Mathews thinking that he will be out no more than the reported 4-6 weeks, meaning you will hopefully get more than enough games out of him (depending on the set up of your league’s playoffs) to maintain his current draft value.
For my money there are four clear-cut top-tier options when it comes to running backs this season – Arian Foster, Ray Rice, LeSean McCoy and Chris Johnson. These four are secured as the starters on their teams and are virtually guaranteed of touching the ball, provided they stay healthy, no less than 300 times this season.
After that there’s no shortage of appealing options certainly, but there’s no shortage of questions associated with each option. For example, Maurice Jones-Drew has yet to report to Jaguars’ training camp because he’s holding out for a new contract. Will this holdout carry over into the regular season? No one knows right now, but depending on when your league holds its draft, isn’t this enough reason to give you pause on calling his name out?
Matt Forte got his new contract, so he’ll be toting the rock for the Bears starting in Week 1. However, remember he missed the final four games of last season with an MCL sprain and the Bears signed Michael Bush in the offseason. Considering Bush rushed for 977 yards with the Raiders last season, you can’t help but wonder if Forte’s workload will be decreased this season as the Bears look to protect their latest long-term investment.
Speaking of injuries, what about Adrian Peterson and Jamaal Charles? Two dynamic, explosive running backs for sure, but they also are both coming back from severe keen injuries that ended their 2011 campaigns at different times. Charles got hurt in Week 1 of last season, while Peterson went down in Week 16. The difference in recovery time alone for the two would lead you to believe that Charles is the “safer” option, but the reports on Peterson’s recovery have been so positive. Which one do you take and when?
And we haven’t even gotten to Darren McFadden (injury risk), Marshawn Lynch (facing potential suspension due to legal troubles), DeMarco Murray (injury risk) or Trent Richardson, who just went under the knife to remove loose particles from a knee that has already been surgically repaired.
The point is this – once you get past the first four running backs, there are really no sure things. While Jones-Drew, Forte and, to a degree, Lynch, appear to be among the safest of the next best available options, I still think you can include Mathews in there as well.
For one, while Mathews did break a bone, he didn’t shred his knee like Charles or Peterson did. As long as the bone heals properly, which is why the initial prognosis is he will be out 4-6 weeks, it shouldn’t take him that long to get back into the flow of things with San Diego’s offense.
Also, even though all three have already had their share of injuries in their NFL careers, I would rather take my chances with Mathews than McFadden or Murray. McFadden has played no more than 13 games in any of his first four seasons, including just seven last year. Murray’s injury history goes back to his college days at Oklahoma and he is coming off a broken ankle he suffered last December. Mathews’ latest injury doesn’t affect his ankle or legs, while both McFadden and Murray have histories with such.
And far as Richardson goes, while I’m not expecting the knee surgery to keep him out an extended period of time it does cut into the rookie’s preparation time as he gets ready for his first NFL season. Combine that with the reports that this knee issue could “linger” as the season progresses, the questions I have related to Cleveland’s offensive line and the fact that rookie Brandon Weeden will be starting at quarterback, that’s enough reasons for me to think twice before drafting Richardson early, especially in a redraft league.
Provided Mathews is back in the lineup by Week 3, he still should be I line for a very productive season. The clear-cut No. 1 back, Mathews is also a viable weapon catching passes out of the backfield as he had 50 receptions for 455 yards last season. Even though he had a down year in 2011, Philip Rivers is still one of the top quarterbacks in the league, which increases Mathews’ value and potential to have a big season as the Chargers’ passing game should help open up rushing lanes but also present big-play opportunities for him.
Before he got hurt, I viewed Mathews as a solid top-10 fantasy running back option this season. My view hasn’t changed, even if it means Mathews won’t play until Week 3. I would put him clearly behind Foster, Rice, McCoy, Johnson, Forte and probably still Jones-Drew, but after that he’s definitely among the next-best available options and right now the only one I would consider taking ahead of him would possibly be Lynch.
Now as far as the San Diego backfield options go without Mathews, this screams running back-by-committee so I wouldn’t go looking for any sleepers here. The Chargers don’t lack for options as Jackie Battle, Curtis Brinkley and Ronnie Brown are all on the roster.
Last season, Brinkley was third on the Chargers in carries with 30, putting him considerably behind Mathews (222) and the now-departed Tolbert (121). Brinkley finished the season with 101 yards rushing (3.4 ypc) and a touchdown.
After losing Tolbert in free agency, the Chargers signed veterans Brown and Battle. Brown is a 1,000-yard rusher, but that came back in 2006 as injuries have taken their toll on the former Auburn Tiger who has taken with the second overall pick in the 2005 NFL Draft. Last season with the Eagles, the now 30-year-old Brown rushed for only 136 yards on 42 carries (3.2 ypc) as the primary backup to McCoy.
For the second straight season, Battle could get an opportunity to establish himself because of an injury to the incumbent starter. Last season, Battle got four starts in Kansas City after Charles went down with season-ending ACL injury in Week 1. Although Battle’s opportunities decreased as the season went along, the sixth-year pro out of Houston finished 2011 with a career-high 597 yards on 149 carries (4.0 ypc) and two touchdowns.
It’s entirely possible that one of these could do enough in training camp and preseason action to lay claim to the starting position. Even if that happens, however, I don’t see enough reason to seriously invest in any of them, except in deeper leagues. Brown is nowhere near the dynamic player he once was and I just don’t think his body can sustain a heavy workload. Battle is one-dimensional, which really doesn’t fit how the Chargers were planning on using Mathews. The opportunity is there for Brinkley, but there’s no history of production to really cling to.
There’s also Le’Ron McClain, the All-Pro fullback the Chargers signed as a free agent in the offseason. Brought in to help clear the way for Mathews, McClain now may get a few more chances to carry the ball instead. That alone should tell you all you need to know about the Chargers’ backfield without Mathews – stay away.
In fact, the biggest beneficiary of Mathews’ absence could be Rivers and wide receivers Vincent Brown, Malcom Floyd and Robert Meachem and tight end Antonio Gates. Chances are without Mathews, the Chargers may be inclined to throw the ball even more than they usually do.
— By Mark Ross, published on August 10, 2012