Some NFL prospects come into the year with expectations that are completely unreasonable. This can be due to a variety of reasons, but many times it is because the prospect follows in the footsteps of a true great. In this article, we talk about a fantasy football breakout player from 2013, Ryan Mathews, and his struggles to replace one of the best running backs in NFL history.
Biggest Fantasy Breakouts of 2013: #9 Ryan Mathews
Ryan Mathews was the 12th overall pick out of Fresno by the Chargers. He was expected to fill some of the biggest shoes in NFL history, left behind by LaDanian Tomlinson, an act that is almost impossible to repeat. Mathews was listed at 6’ and weighed 215 pounds, a great size for a running back that uses power and vision for his game without sacrificing speed. His production at Fresno was impressive, however injuries were a concern. The Chargers didn’t hesitate to make him an early round pick as he had the makings of a future star in this league.
Expectations were sky high for Mathews. The Chargers were excited to have him as their lead back while fantasy owners were drafting him as high as the late first round. But it was almost impossible for Mathews to meet those expectations, as few rookies do. His first season in the NFL, while not completely disappointing, was not good by any means. He finished averaging 4.3 yards per carry, but only rushed for 678 yards, struggling with fumbles and injuries. Owners and the Chargers were clearly disappointed with the season, but the future was still bright. The next year, Mathews combined for 1,500 total yards, but missed two more games with injury. In 2012, injuries once again hobbled Mathews as he broke his clavicle twice, and he also lost carries to the talent-inept Jackie Battle. He went on to rush for only 700 yards. 2013 was seen as the "last chance" for Mathews, and fantasy football experts were not confident in his chances. The Chargers offensive line was a mess and Philip Rivers was coming off his worst season as a pro. They had no exciting offensive weapons outside Danario Alexander, who tore his ACL in training camp. Keenan Allen was seen as a raw rookie at that point. Mike McCoy was brought in from Denver, an offensive guru who worked with Peyton Manning and Tim Tebow, but the negatives still outweighed all the positives. However, against all odds, Mathews and the Chargers were motivated.
Mathews finished the 2013 NFL season with 1,255 yards rushing, 189 yards receiving and 8 touchdowns. He had 6 games with over 100 yards and came close in a few others. His most impressive game was against Denver in week 15, where he was asked to lead San Diego’s offense in order to keep Peyton Manning off the field, rushing for 127 yards and a touchdown on 29 carries. He also didn’t miss a single game this season to injury.
Not many people saw this coming. Mathews was coming off a statistically down year in 2012, and the Chargers offense was not a powerhouse anymore. Owners drafted him as the 25th running back off the board on average, and for good reason. However, with a new coach, the entire Chargers offense was rejuvenated. Mike McCoy brought a different style than Norv Turner, one focused on power runs and a less vertical attack. It suited the strengths of Rivers, Mathews and the below average offensive line. The emergence of Keenan Allen, and the resurrection of Antonio Gates, Philip Rivers, and Mathews was proof that the system truly worked. Mathews was probably the most impressive out of all these guys, a true testament to his great season. In just about every game he was able to fight for touch yards in between the tackles while also showing some burst. His receiving yards were down because of the signing of Danny Woodhead, but he finally seemed to have fixed his fumbling issues, losing just one fumble on the year. Mathews seemed to be in new form and stayed healthy for a majority of the season, outside of a concussion and pretty severe ankle sprain late in the season that hobbled him in the postseason.
Mathews has all the talent in the world, and the Chargers have a bright future. Keenan Allen should continue to develop, and the emergence of Ladarius Green gives Philip Rivers yet another offensive weapon. The offensive line should do nothing but improve, and Mathews should be motivated to be in the best shape of his life as he approaches his contract year. If Mathews didn’t have an injury prone label, he would be an interesting late first round pick next year in fantasy football drafts. However, he is coming off his first “healthy” season where he played all 16 games. I quote healthy because he clearly should not have played in the playoffs because of his injury. Mathews has a great opportunity to have the best season of his career next year, but the only question is whether he can play a full season next year. If he falls in the draft, he would be a great value pick late in the second or early in the third round, but any earlier would be a risk given his extensive injury history.
Dynasty owners would be wise to sell high on Mathews. There are plenty of running backs in this and next year's rookie draft that are just as, if not more exciting, than Mathews. While he is just 26 years old, we can’t see him having many more years that go as well as the one he just had.