And so it is, as it was written. The NFL season will likely begin without Ryan Mathews, and as mid August creeps upon us along with fantasy draft season, a running back pool that was already shallow at the top has lost a few more inches of water. Soon enough we’ll be in an ankle-deep kiddie pool, with water wings a required accessory.
I know what you’re thinking, my optimism addicted friend. Mathews will only miss 3-4 games tops, so there’s no reason to break that glass case
of emotion and jump from tall buildings while wearing no clothes. And you’re right, sort of, a little bit.
Mathews’ broken clavicle and the surgery it requires will keep him out for four-to-six weeks, and if we continue to see a glass that’s half filled with fluid as opposed to one that’s half empty, on the short end of that timetable he’ll miss just one game. But on the longer end he’ll miss up to a quarter of the season depending on the speed of his recovery, a significant absence for a player who lacks durability, and has already missed six games in his young career.
Thankfully this happened early in the preseason, giving you plenty of time to make adjustments in your RB rankings. The tweak for Mathews will be a minimal one, but he needs to fall due to his in-season absence, and because this is an injury that could linger and cause further problems for a player who’s expected to absorb pounding, and has done poorly with that job requirement so far. He has only one more carry than me during this preseason, and that’s all Mathews needed to make a return to his training table perch.
It’s certainly true that when healthy, he’s still a high end running back, but if he misses three-to-four games that’s a sizable loss of production opportunities. For example, if we use his 2011 season when Mathews had 1,536 all-purpose yards over 14 games on an average of 109.7 yards per week and see what his total would have been in two fewer games, the yardage number drops to 1,316. That’s a difference of 38.2 fantasy points (Mathews had 131.6 points over 14 games, and would have had 93.4 over 12).
Still not concerned? Scoring formats always differ, but generally in standard format 10-team leagues that offer a point for every 10 receiving and rushing yards, the top five RBs had at least 200 points. With Mike Tolbert gone and Chargers head coach Norv Turner set to strap a shiny cowbell onto his third-year back and rip off his diapers for a 300-carry season, Mathews was being widely touted as a breakout candidate set to join that elite group.
Now maybe he won’t after his recovery. Maybe he will. Hell I don’t know, and really, that’s the point here. Any confidence you could have possibly had in an RB who’s built with some combination of paper and silly puddy has to be evaporating a bit. So if you’ve already drafted, hopefully you handcuffed Ronnie Brown to Mathews, but since he’s 30 years old and therefore dying as a running back, owning Brown might suck. Brown averaged only 3.2 yards per carry with the Eagles last year.
Brown may be the early clubhouse leader for carries with Mathews out and the favorite as a handcuff or waiver wire pickup, but with strong performances throughout the remainder of the preseason Jackie Battle and Curtis Brinkley could challenge. The solution if you haven’t drafted yet? In ESPN leagues, Mathews is currently coming off the board at 13th overall. If you’re sitting in that early second-round spot, knock him down two slots in your RB rankings. He’s then below Matt Forte and Marshawn Lynch, and just ahead of Adrian Peterson (another serious injury concern), and the inexperienced DeMarco Murray.
A safe pick doesn’t exist at the running back position, one rife with brittle bones and broken dreams. But managing risk should always be the primary focus, and with his potential down time Mathews should fade ever so slightly to lead the gaggle of backs with more serious injury questions and potential time sharing situations.
While this injury hurts Mathews in fantasy and reality, it’ll likely help Philip Rivers early in the season. He’ll be asked to throw more, and hopefully those throws don’t finish in the hands of the opposition at an alarming rate as they did last year (Rivers had a career-high 20 INTs).
Above all, though, Mathews’ busted clavicle is another reminder of a core strategy: beyond the elite top four of Arian Foster, LeSean McCoy, Ray Rice, and Maurice Jones-Drew (arguably a top three due to MJD’s holdout), emphasize quarterbacks early, because the risk associated with the running back position far outweighs the early-round price you’re paying.