4 Reasons Why I've Been Drafting Ryan Mathews in Best Ball Leagues
No weekly lineup decisions. No waiver wire. No trading.
That's what best ball leagues are all about -- you draft your team, you never set a lineup and you watch it become optimized based on how your players perform each week.
Naturally, this changes your draft strategy tremendously. Without a waiver wire, it's generally wise to lock in higher-end running backs early on in your draft (even more than usual), as that's where the bankable players at the position are found -- you don't have the benefit of picking up a player like Justin Forsett.
But adding depth at the running back position after the early portion of the draft is still important. And one guy I've been targeting in best ball drafts -- MFL10 drafts, to be more specific -- is Ryan Mathews. Here's why.
1. Volume, But Unpredictable Volume
Last season, only five teams ran more rushing plays than the Eagles. This isn't a shock -- Chip Kelly's offense not only can be ground-friendly, but it's a fast-paced one that results in more total plays.
Volume is your best friend in fantasy football. Although DeMarco Murray will surely take a LeSean McCoy-type role in the Eagles offense this year, it's important to note that the Eagles' number-two back over the team's two years with Chip Kelly has seen an average of 65.5 carries per season.
But that's also with McCoy monopolizing the backfield, and no true backup behind him. Shady saw 314 carries in each of his two seasons under Kelly, a number that was highest and second highest in the NFL in 2013 and 2014, respectively. Coming off a 392-carry season (plus the playoffs) himself, it wouldn't make a ton of sense for Philly to give Murray a monster workload when there's a capable back behind him on the depth chart.
Enter Mathews, who could gobble up the bell-cow subtraction. And that seems to be the thinking around Philadelphia -- Rotoworld recently noted that Eagles reporter Sheil Kapadia projects Murray to see 17 carries, Mathews 9 and Sproles 2 per game in 2015.
That would give Mathews 144 carries -- which obviously doesn't include receiving -- in the Eagles' backfield this year. A season ago, 144 carries ranked 33rd in the NFL at the running back position. Considering his draft cost and the ambiguity from a touch standpoint of the players being drafted around him, we should take this all day long.
The important piece to this -- and the key reason why this volume matters mostly in best ball leagues -- is that backup runners can often see unpredictable weekly volume. But because you're not having to make weekly lineup decisions, that doesn't really matter. What's best is that these question marks surrounding Mathews are sort of driving his best ball cost down when, really, it's kind of irrelevant given the format.
And even if this number is lower -- say, our projected 93 carries -- you're still buying into other things, too. Like the next point.
2. Exposure to the DeMarco Murray Breakdown
Handcuffing isn't my thing in fantasy football. Practicing the strategy takes up a needed roster spot, and you're not even close to guaranteed that your handcuff will ever get the chance to play.
But we can't deny that this is an added bonus for Ryan Mathews owners this season. DeMarco Murray not only has missed time due to injury in three of his four NFL seasons, but he's coming off a year, as I mentioned before, where he ran the ball over 400 times.
I won't get into the "curse of 370 carries", because the sample size we have on running backs who have been given that arbitrary number of carries in a season is quite small. Running back injuries do happen though, and one to DeMarco Murray -- who really carried the load last season for Dallas -- would mean a clear path to great numbers in a run-friendly offense for Mathews.
3. Touchdown Opportunities
The pace of play in the Eagles offense not only creates a lot of volume for running backs, but it also generates scoring opportunities.
A season ago, only three teams ran more rushing plays within their opponents' 10-yard line than the Eagles. As a result, Philadelphia tied for seventh in rushing touchdowns within that range.
But LeSean McCoy wasn't a top-10 running back in terms of rushes within these boundaries. That's because Chip Kelly, to the disgust of fantasy owners, gave the rock to Chris Polk 11 times within the opponents' 10-yard line last year (30th among running backs), and Darren Sproles an additional 8 (43rd).
2013 wasn't much different. The Eagles ranked seventh in rushes within their opponents' 10-yard line, but LeSean McCoy still finished 13th in rushing attempts within the 10. The difference was that quarterbacks Nick Foles and Michael Vick got into the action, along with backup running back Bryce Brown.
Could this be because LeSean McCoy isn't very good at the goal line? I have my doubts. Since 2010, 30 running backs have carried the ball 50 or more times within their opponents' 10-yard line. LeSean McCoy's rate of scoring touchdowns among this cohort ranks eighth, ahead of players like Jamaal Charles, Alfred Morris and -- you guessed it -- DeMarco Murray.
In fact, Murray's rate of scoring from that range sits at 22.22%, which is 22nd best among the group of 30. McCoy's is 32.86%. Murray has been, however, better from within the 5-yard line over his career.
The other point to make here is that, with Sam Bradford, the Eagles have an opportunity to be more efficient than they were a season ago offensively. According to our schedule-adjusted Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, on a per play basis in 2014, Philly ranked 14th -- tied with two other teams -- in offensive efficiency. Anything better than that could create more chances for these running backs.
Even if Murray is a better goal-line back, there's not a ton of evidence to show that he's far and away better than McCoy has been over his career. And because of this and Chip Kelly's two-year tendency to rotate things around close to the end zone, you have opportunity for a guy like Mathews to score some touchdowns.
And, like the volume note above, the reason this is a bigger deal in best ball leagues is because there's no guessing. Just like you may not know which game Mathews gets 12 or 13 carries instead of 5 or 6, you won't have an easy time predicting which contests he finds the end zone in. With a best ball league, however, scoring is done in hindsight -- you'll be able to take advantage of those smaller outliers.
4. He's Still a Good Back
Lastly, let's not forget that Ryan Mathews is still good at football. He's carried the injury-prone and bust tags along with him over his NFL career, but those associations aren't exactly fair. Mathews' Rushing Net Expected Points per rush last year of 0.09 was tied for sixth best in the NFL among 70-plus attempt backs, and it was far and away -- and I mean far and away -- the best rate on the Chargers. And actually, behind the same offensive line, Donald Brown ranked dead last in Rushing NEP per rush among this group of 61, while Branden Oliver was eighth worst.
Don't sleep on Ryan Mathews, especially in this type of league format.