Is Ryan Mathews Worth a Top Five Pick?
One of the risers in Fantasy drafts this offseason has been San Diego Chargers running back Ryan Mathews. Those on board Mathews’ bandwagon see a player primed to break out in a Chargers offense in which he’ll be the focal point. On the anti-Mathews crusade are those who see a player that hasn’t been elite in the past and can’t necessarily handle a heavy workload. Here’s why the doubters are wrong. . .
Mathews has very little competition for touches in San Diego. Some people view that as a con, arguing that Mathews will be targeted by defenses and his efficiency will plummet. In researching running backs, however, I noticed it is total touches, not necessarily efficiency, that dictates how successful the running back can be from a Fantasy perspective. That is, seek running backs who will garner heavy workloads.
Below, take a look at my projected 2012 rushing yards. Note that this list is comprised solely of the top 20 backs from 2011.
1. Maurice Jones-Drew: 300 carries for 1,338 yards (4.46)
2. Adrian Peterson: 300 carries for 1,335 yards (4.45)
3. Ray Rice: 290 carries for 1,316 yards (4.46)
4. Ryan Mathews: 280 carries for 1,274 yards (4.55)
5. Michael Turner: 280 carries for 1,224 yards (4.37)
6. Arian Foster: 275 carries for 1,194 yards (4.34)
7. LeSean McCoy: 260 carries for 1,170 yards (4.50)
8. Chris Johnson: 275 carries for 1,150 yards (4.18)
9. Matt Forte: 250 carries for 1,138 yards (4.55)
10. Fred Jackson: 225 carries for 1,078 yards (4.79)
11. Marshawn Lynch: 250 carries for 1,068 yards (4.27)
12. Shonn Greene: 250 carries for 1,063 yards (4.25)
13. Reggie Bush: 220 carries for 1,012 yards (4.60)
14. Frank Gore: 230 carries for 989 yards (4.30)
15. Steven Jackson: 220 carries for 955 yards (4.34)
16. Willis McGahee: 210 carries for 949 yards (4.52)
17. Beanie Wells: 210 carries for 901 yards (4.29)
18. Cedric Benson: 150 carries for 621 yards (4.14)
19. Ben Tate: 125 carries for 594 yards (4.75)
20. Michael Bush: 100 carries for 411 yards (4.11)
You can see just how important it is to receive a lot of touches. The list is basically the top backs listed sequentially in terms of carries. Since running backs’ yards-per-carry totals are often so similar, they aren’t as important to Fantasy owners as projected carries.
Consistency of top-tier backs
In writing my book, I found that running back as a whole isn’t an incredibly stable position. Only wide receivers are less predictable. At an elite level, however, running back performance tends to remain pretty steady. Check out the graph below.
I compared the 2011 Fantasy rank of the top 20 players at quarterback, running back, and wide receiver with their projected 2012 totals. These projected ranks are based solely on a regression of statistics based on a player’s previous three seasons, and in no way subjective.
You can see the Top Five running backs are nearly as consistent as the elite quarterbacks. Wide receivers, particularly at the top of the draft, are a complete crapshoot. The Top Five receivers over the past few years have moved, on average, over five spots in the rankings.
After the top running backs, the consistency at the position plummets. If you’re picking near the top of the draft, grabbing an elite running back is crucial. Mathews is one of those backs in 2012.
Average Draft Position
As of now, Mathews’ average draft position is anywhere between four and eight, depending where you look. In most drafts, Mathews gets selected around fifth or sixth. Here is Mathews’ ADP over the past few weeks, compared to Ray Rice, Arian Foster, LeSean McCoy, and Calvin Johnson.
You can see Mathews’ ADP is very similar to that of Calvin Johnson. If you’re debating between the Detroit Lions star and Mathews, stop. Megatron is obviously a talented player, but bypassing an elite running back in favor of a player whose positional depth skyrockets later in the draft wouldn’t be wise.
Jonathan Bales is the author of Fantasy Football for Smart People: How to Dominate Your Draft. He is also the founder of The DC Times and writes for the New York Times and Dallas Cowboys.