Is Ryan Mathews Overrated in Fantasy Football?

The Chargers leading rusher in 2013 returns, but what should we expect?

Ryan Mathews has one of those "Dwyane Wade" names that everyone misspells, because it defies the normal spelling standards, and the spell checker in our brains simply assumes there is a second "t" in his last name. His quarterback, Philip Rivers with one "l", has that same spelling oddity that many overlook.

But once you write about sports for long enough, you learn the spellings of particular names, and they become etched in your brain. And it all usually starts with taking a second look at the name in question. People will continue to write "Matthews," "Dwayne," and "Phillip" but now that you've read this article, you won't.

However, I was guilty of a much more grievous offense when it came to Ryan Mathews. I assumed he was a much more valuable fantasy football asset than he really is going to be this season.

So while I learned how to spell his name, and thought I knew everything there was to know about him, I went through all of draft season under the assumption that Mathews was the lead back on a run-heavy team with a smart offensive coordinator, and that I'd use that to my advantage.

I was wrong.

Fantasy Versus Reality

Ryan Mathews is a really good football player. I don't want you to think that, based on my previous statements, I believe Mathews to be sup-par. He's not.

Among backs with 200 or more carries last season, Mathews finished above average in both Rushing Net Expected Points and Success Rate. Net Expected Points, or NEP, is a measure of how a player's actions impact his team's expected points based on game situation, while Success Rate is a measure of how frequently a player gains positive NEP on a play.

So Mathews was one of the better full-time running backs in 2013, and played in all 16 games for the first time in his NFL career. But don't mistake opportunity for improvement. Here's a chart of Mathews' career production.

YearGamesRushesRush NEPPer RushRecRec NEPRec NEP per Target

His 2013 season is quite similar to his 2011 season, with the exception of a drastic reduction in passing game involvement. For the real Ryan Mathews, that's not a big deal, as it clearly defines his role and gives him a better chance of succeeding in real football. But for fake football fans, a lack of targets and catches means fewer points, and fewer points is a bad thing.

So while his rushing numbers are impressive, the end product is something that will make a GM or head coach smile, but a fantasy owner bang his head against a table. And it only gets worse from here...

What Can Brown Do For You?

The Chargers added Donald Brown this offseason, stealing away the former Colts backup to help bolster their rushing attack. Brown has consistently been a high-volume backup in his career, seeing 100 or more rushing attempts every year since 2010.

YearRushesRush NEPRush NEP/P

The Chargers would clearly have similar plans in mind if they opened their checkbook to bring in Brown, who had the best year of his career in 2013. He replaces Ronnie Brown, who's no longer with the team, but Donald figures to be handed the ball more often than the other Brown was a year ago.

And with Danny Woodhead still in town (we'll talk more about him in a bit), that means Donald Brown's extra carries will likely dig into Mathews' total, bringing him down to a total similar to his 2011 campaign.

But that's not the end of the world for Mathews, who had a solid year in 2011, finishing with over 1,000 yards and scoring six times in 14 games. But it's the way he was used then, and the way he'll be used in 2014, that is the bigger concern for fantasy footballers this year.

Knock on Wood

That's because Danny Woodhead is still hanging around, and he's assumed the Mike Tolbert role of "stealing all of Ryan Mathews' relevant red-zone opportunities." In 2011, Tolbert dominated the carries inside the 20, finishing with nearly twice as many as Mathews, while seeing 16 red-zone targets when compared to Mathews' 2.

Last year it was a similar story for Woodhead and Mathews. Let's take a look at the numbers to see what I'm talking about.

SituationMathewsWoodheadR. Brown
Inside 20372010
Inside 1015114
Inside 5763

The chart above shows carry distribution when inside the 20, 10 and 5. And despite having fewer overall touches, Danny Woodhead has an annoyingly high (if you're banking on Mathews for fantasy football) amount of red-zone work.

Combine the chart above with Woodhead's status as the NFL leader in red-zone catches last year (yes, no player in the NFL had more red-zone catches than little Danny Woodhead), while Ryan Mathews again had only two such catches, and you can see why the fantasy value is quickly draining from the Chargers' "lead back."

Donald Brown was used fairly heavily in the red zone in Indianapolis last season, as well, and figures to carve into the overall red zone touches more than Ronnie Brown did a year ago.

The Verdict

Ryan Mathews is a fine football player, who runs with good efficiency and overall production. He's been healthier than most people think (only missing a handful of games over the past three seasons), and is a big asset for an offense that ran the seventh-most rushing plays a year ago, and may run even more in 2014.

But the fantasy football-relevant touches just aren't there for Mathews, who is pushed aside by Woodhead (and Brown in 2014) when it comes to high-scoring opportunities.

So if you're starting a real NFL team, Mathews is a fine pick as an underrated running back with a versatile skill set. But when it comes to fantasy football, you may want to pass (or sell, if you're already invested) on the Chargers' leading rusher.