Fantasy Breakdown: Why Are People So Low on Ryan Mathews?

Ryan Mathews Fantasy 2016

Ryan MathewsLost in the shuffle of all the quarterback controversy that has embroiled Philadelphia this offseason, there are multiple questions surrounding the ground game of the Eagles. If, as expected, new coach Doug Pederson makes this the staple of his new offense, it is surely logical to look at who will be entrusted to shoulder this burden.

One of the 2015 marquee free agent signings, DeMarco Murray is now a participant in the “Exotic Smashmouth” in Tennessee with the Titans, leaving behind a stable of backs in Ryan Mathews, Darren Sproles, Kenjon Barner and recent draftee Wendell Smallwood.

The fantasy football community does not seem thoroughly impressed with this unit, with 21 other running backs being taken ahead of the first Eagles back Mathews including Murray. This means that Mathews is expected to provide no better than low end RB2 value. This expectation should provide impetus for him to be taken with all dispatch, and not ignored.

[the_ad id=”63198″]Behind the same offensive line, and in the same offensive system, that was offered up as an excuse for the poor play of Murray last year, Mathews was able to produce respectable numbers. Taking up 48% of the Eagles rushing attempts, Murray managed a pitiful 702 yards from his 193 carries, at 3.6 yards per tote, equating to 46.67 yards per game. Mathews 30% market share, or 107 carries, saw him amass 539 yards at 5.0 yards per carry. His much smaller workload saw him accumulate an average of 41.46 yards per game. In three games in which Murray was entrusted with at least 20 carries, he was able to eclipse the 100 yard mark just once, whereas Mathews made 108 yards in his sole 20 carry game, against a New York Jets defense that allowed the second fewest rushing yards in 2015. Mathews was simply better than Murray last season, and as already noted earlier this offseason he deserved, and deserves, more chances to showcase his talents.

The 2015 season was no mere flash in the pan for Mathews. Including this first season with the Eagles, he has managed 4,600 career rushing yards at 4.5 yards per carry, scoring 29 rushing touchdowns. To show that he is no mere two down back, he is able to contribute in the passing game.

Season Rush Atts Rush Yards Rush Tds
2013 15th 10th 5th
2014 16th 10th 3rd
2015 12th 6th 1st

 

To date, he has snared 78% of his career targets, converting 166 of his 212 looks into 1256 yards and two touchdowns. This ability to contribute to the passing game will surely stand him in good stead with Pederson, who comes from a Chiefs team in which the lead running back received 13% of the passing targets between 2013-15. But most importantly for Mathews, and Pederson, is the ground game. The chart below shows where the Chiefs rank in notable rushing categories in Pederson’s three seasons with the team.

This leads us to what will probably be the main reason for the apparent lack of enthusiasm for Mathews. Someone once said that the best ability is availability, and this is an area in which Mathews has had some previous failures. If we look back to his time in college and the pros, he has suffered the following injuries.

These numbers support the theory that Pederson’s Eagles will run the ball at ton, and it is hard to imagine any other current Eagle back shouldering the majority of the load. Kenjon Barner, a 2013 draft pick of the Carolina Panthers, has just 34 career carries.

Season Injury
2007 Fractured Clavicle
2008 Fractured Foot
2009 Concussion
2010 Ankle injury X2
2011 Calf injury X2, Fractured Hand
2012 Concussion, Fractured Collarbone
2013 Concussion, Hamstring Injury
2014 MCL injury
2015 Concussion
2016 Sports Hernia

 

[the_ad id=”58837″]The explosive Darren Sproles, who missed the voluntary portion of the offseason workouts, remains a vital cog of the Eagles offense, but a workhorse he is not. He has never logged more than 93 carries in a season, and that was back in 2009. It is hard to envision his age 33 season as the year he shoulders a full offensive load. The there is the rookie Smallwood. Drafted out of Virginia by the Eagles this spring, he enjoyed a deal of success in college. His three year totals for the Moutaineers saw him amass 2462 rushing yards at 5.8 yards a carry (with 12 touchdowns, nine in 2015), while he also contributed 68 receptions for 618 yards.

His ability to get on the field, and more importantly stay on it, will depend greatly on his ability to pass protect, which is an area in which Jimmy Kempski among others believes he needs to seriously improve. As impressive a time he has had in padless practise, “turning heads” according to NJ.com, if he is not able to protect Sam Bradford/Carson Wentz/Chase Daniel (delete as applicable) he won’t be a threat to Ryan Mathews.

Mathews has missed 23 games out of 96 since entering the NFL in 2009. He has played in all 16 games in a season just once, but never started more than 14. As unpopular and misleading a term as “injury prone” is when describing people who participate in what former Oakland Raiders CEO Amy Trask calls a “collision sport”, Mathews comes pretty close to answering to the description. It is hard to imagine that there is anyone with any degree of wisdom regarding the NFL thinking that Mathews will make it through a full season unscathed, but if he can play in most games then the numbers would support the argument that he can be a solid fantasy option.

Given his current average draft position of somewhere in the 5th round, a fit Mathews should be a solid option as a first running back to be taken by a fantasy owner adhering to the Zero RB strategy. He should see enough volume as a runner to be a lead back, and also should stay on the field enough times as a pass catcher to offer additional value to an owner who committed the most part of his/her draft to stockpiling talent at the wide receiver position. If he can just stay healthy.

Check out to see where we ranked Ryan Mathews in Gridiron Experts running back projections here

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