What Ryan Mathews' Injury Means for the San Diego Running Game

Ryan Mathews is hurt once again. What are the fantasy football implications this time around?

Ryan Mathews is injured. Stop me if you're heard this one before.

The unluckiest of NFL players when it comes to injuries has suffered yet another setback, as Ian Rapoport of NFL Media reports that Mathews will be out for 4-5 weeks with an MCL sprain. And despite claims that he'll try to be back sooner, he'll definitely miss out on the Chargers next few contests, and that has obvious fantasy football implications.

Just before Week 1's kickoff, I came to the realization that Ryan Mathews was overrated in fantasy football due to the way he'd be used by the Chargers. And through two weeks, that hypothesis was quickly becoming reality.

Through two weeks, Mathews had only 23 of his team's 46 running back rushing attempts, and only four of the team's 71 receiving targets. He saw no targets in the red zone, and carried the ball only three times inside the 20. In other words, he was being used as a between-the-20's back with limited fantasy upside, but plenty of "real football" value to a team looking to control the clock and dominate the ground game.

With Mathews on the sideline, the fantasy football situation in San Diego becomes crystal clear. Danny Woodhead becomes "Fred Jackson on Steroids," while Donald Brown becomes 2013 Ryan Mathews.

Fred Jackson on Steroids

Over the next month, Danny Woodhead will have the most fantasy-friendly workload of any running back in the NFL. This is a title that he previously shared with Fred Jackson, but with Mathews' absence, he takes hold of the top spot on his own.

Woodhead was the only other running back to post a red zone carry this year apart from Mathews, and is regularly targeted inside the 20 as well. He's given the ball in space via the passing game between the 20's, when scoring is less likely, and handed the ball in the red zone, where scoring is more likely. That's as "fake football friendly" as it gets.

So in all formats, but especially in PPR leagues, the diminutive Chadron State product becomes an top-tier running back option for a run-heavy team that will feature him as often as possible. Last season, the Chargers were one of the more run-heavy teams, finishing with the seventh-lowest pass-to-run ratio, and Woodhead had the most red zone receptions of any player in the NFL. Expect all of that to continue over the next month with Mathews sidelined.

Donald Brown Becomes 2013 Ryan Mathews

Donald Brown is an interesting pickup for the next month, as the former Indianapolis Colt now steps into Ryan Mathews' 2013 role as the between-the-20's volume back who makes way for Woodhead in "scoring situations." This was bad for Mathews as a fantasy prospect, because he was being drafted so high, but for Brown, the value is right if you've stashed him away or if he's on your waiver wire.

Brown had the best year of his career in 2013, posting his best numbers according to our Net Expected Points metrics since entering the league in 2009. In fact, on a per-rush basis, he was twice as good as his previous best season in the NFL, all behind a patchwork offensive line in Indy.

He'll have a bigger role with Mathews out, and that means a chance at volume and yards, but not many easy chances at touchdowns. Still, for a player you can get off of the waiver wire in some leagues, and for cheap in a trade in others, Brown is a nice month-long fill-in for owners of injured backs like Mark Ingram, Jamaal Charles and Knowshon Moreno.

Mathews Is Still Relevant

Like I mentioned above, Ryan Mathews' was only "overrated" in fantasy football because of what it cost to acquire him coming into this season. He's an obvious injury risk, as he continues to prove, but that's anecdotal and not something that should stand in the way of acquiring valuable assets for your fantasy team.

No matter your league's format, if someone drops Ryan Mathews, you pick him up immediately. And feel free to reach out to the Mathews owner in your league this week and secure a trade for the San Diego runner.

The Fresno State product had his best year in the NFL as a runner in 2013 under his new head coach and coaching staff, posting impressive raw statistics and shining in our NEP data as well. He's not going to score a ton of touchdowns, but few players represent the level of safety and volume of Mathews at the running back position.

So if you missed out on Ryan Mathews, feel free to stash him on your bench during this stretch of depressed value. When he returns in a month, Woodhead will still remain a fantasy football asset, but Mathews will assume his role as a viable flex option and be more than worth your wait if you get him at a reduced price.