Friday, August 20, 2010

FANTASY FOOTBALL: Mathews Looks To Warrant Serious Consideration as No. 5 RB Drafted

by Micah Roberts
Las Vegas Review-Journal

Every year as NFL fantasy drafts near, the biggest dilemma every owner has centers on running backs. The backs are the most eagerly sought after position and can be the foundation for any successful team.

Last season's best first-round bargain ended up being the Titans' Chris Johnson, who ran for more than 2,000 yards in addition to having more than 500 reception yards en route to 16 total touchdowns.
Backs who consistently hurt teams by underachieving were Michael Turner, Matt Forte, Frank Gore and Steven Jackson, all of whom were drafted by most within the top six picks.

While Jackson had his second-best career output with 1,416 yards rushing, he scored only four touchdowns. Injuries kept Gore and Turner from living up to the numbers expected of a top-six pick. Forte never got a grip on his role in Jay Cutler's offense.

After scanning each team's rosters, considering their game plans and seeing where some of this year's backs have been taken in mock drafts, there appears to be value for a few this season who warrant earlier consideration because they could become breakout performers.

The first is San Diego rookie Ryan Mathews. In the past two seasons, many blamed the Chargers' lack of production in the running game on a change in offensive philosophy geared more toward quarterback Philip Rivers and the offensive line not doing its job in run-blocking situations.

Perhaps the media and coaching staff were just being kind to future Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson by regularly placing blame elsewhere. The reality is that Tomlinson lost a step after seven stellar years in the NFL, averaging 3.3 yards per carry.

Mathews' biggest contribution might be his pass-catching, an amenity that virtually disappeared for Rivers last season, as Tomlinson caught only 20 passes -- the lowest total of his career. Some fantasy players think backup Darren Sproles could see more time with Tomlinson gone, but that notion should be put to rest as Sproles remained a third-down back even as Tomlinson struggled last year.

Look for Mathews to get more than 300 carries and crack 1,400 yards rushing with double-digit touchdowns. The Chargers are going to score lots of points and are helped by playing six games against weak AFC West competition, and Mathews will be the new face of that attack.

After Johnson, Adrian Peterson, Maurice Jones-Drew and Ray Rice have been taken, Mathews should garner consideration as the fifth back taken.

Other running backs to consider early:

■ Shonn Greene, Jets: He'll be running behind perhaps the NFL's best offensive line and replaces Thomas Jones, who ran for 1,402 yards in 2009. Greene has been drafted as about the 12th back, but he should be looked at earlier than the likes of Rashard Mendenhall, Cedric Benson and Turner.

■ LeSean McCoy, Eagles: He is being drafted by most in the fourth round as the 20th back taken. He takes over the role of Brian Westbrook in coach Andy Reid's West Coast offense, which means his expected receptions and receiving yards will be higher than most backs in the league. He could be one of the best bargains in the draft.

On the web: Roberts Top-50 Running Back Rankings

Micah Roberts is a former Las Vegas sports book director who covers sports for various publications. He can be reached at

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