Ryan Mathews Is Worth the Risk in Fantasy Football This Year
Each and every year, there’s a running back (or more) drafted outside the top 20 who surprises with a top 10 season in fantasy football leagues.
This year, could Ryan Mathews be that back?
According to FantasyFootballCalculator.com, Mathews is currently the 24th running back off the board, going in the fifth round of 12-team drafts.
Your first thought to this might have been, “Well, duh. Mathews is always injured. 24 is probably too high anyway.”
And you’d be half right. The 28-year-old Mathews has only played a full 16-game season once in his six-year career. But during that time, Mathews has flashed the potential to be a top fantasy back, finishing the season as high as RB8 in 2011 and RB12 in 2013.
With DeMarco Murray down in Tennessee, Mathews appears in line to enter training camp as the Eagles' lead back. He’s joined in the Eagles' backfield by 32-year-old change-of-pace back Darren Sproles and fifth-round draft choice Wendell Smallwood.
So while the injury risk is high, Mathews has shown the ability -- and now has the opportunity -- to enter the conversation as a potential top-15 or even top-10 fantasy running back.
In March, the Eagles traded Murray, their leading rusher from 2015, to the Tennessee Titans, leaving only Mathews, Sproles, and Kenjon Barner in the backfield. In his lone, disappointing season with the Eagles, Murray carried the ball 193 times, which was four more carries than Mathews and Sproles had combined.
After Chip Kelly's offense was all the craze in 2013 and 2014, the Eagles' running game slipped in 2015, ranking 20th in Adjusted Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP) per play.
The Eagles ranked 11th in attempts per game (27.6) but only ranked 14th in yards per game (108.9).
With Kelly gone to San Francisco, the Eagles have brought back Doug Pederson, who spent three seasons as an assistant coach with the Eagles for Andy Reid from 2009 to 2012. When Reid was fired in 2012, Pederson followed Reid to Kansas City where he served as the Chiefs’ offensive coordinator.
During Pederson's tenure in Kansas City, the Chiefs were a run-heavy team, running the ball on 58 percent of their plays in 2015 and 57 percent in 2014 and 2013.
Even with Jamaal Charles missing 13 games over the past three seasons, including 11 in 2015, the Chiefs' running game was an efficient one. The Chiefs averaged about 27 running plays per game, which is middle of the pack in terms of the league average, but were consistently productive and never ranked worse than 10th in yards per game.
Just last year, with Charles, Charcandrick West, and Spencer Ware all seeing time as the team’s feature back, the Chiefs finished second in Adjusted Rushing NEP per play as a team. Despite the turnstile at running back, the Chiefs ranked sixth in yards per game (127.8) in 2015. Charles, West, and Ware all posted multiple top-10 fantasy scoring weeks throughout the year, as each player missed time due to injury.
With Murray's workload no longer a roadblock, Kelly's running scheme out the door, and Pederson's run-friendly offense in place, Mathews has the opportunity for fantasy success.
Last season, Mathews was part of a three-headed backfield for the Eagles with Murray and Sproles.
|Player||Carries||Yards||Yd/Carry||Rush NEP||Rush NEP/P||Success Rate|
Mathews had only 106 carries in 2015 for 539 yards, but had a Rushing NEP of 0.54, which outperformed Murray’s -5.73.
Sproles was the Eagles' most efficient back last year as measured by Rushing NEP on 83 carries, the most the 32-year-old back has seen since 2011. Sproles has never had more than 93 carries in a season, which he had in 2009 with the San Diego Chargers.
Mathews was the Eagles’ most effective back by numberFire’s Success Rate metric, which is the percentage of runs on which a player increases his team’s net expected points, therefore earning positive NEP.
Mathews posted a positive gain on more than 46 percent of his attempts, which was fourth-best among 44 running backs with 100 or more carries in 2015. Only Rashad Jennings (50.77%), David Johnson (50.40%), and Matt Forte (46.33%) posted higher scores.
While this mark alone looks promising, compared to Murray's 33.51% (which ranked 43rd among 44 backs with at least 100 totes) behind the same offensive line, it's pretty phenomenal. And Mathews has a great track record with Success Rate regardless of his offense.
Mathews played second-fiddle to Murray for much of last season, although he served as the team’s primary back in Week 3 when Murray was ruled out with an injury. In that game against the New York Jets, Mathews had 24 carries for 108 yards and caught two passes for 20 yards and a touchdown.
Although Sproles is one of the better pass-catching backs in the league, Mathews has shown the ability to be a threat out of the backfield, further adding to his value. In his career, Mathews has caught 78 percent of the passes thrown his way (166 receptions on 212 targets). Although he was a champion by Rushing Success Rate, his Reception Success Rate of 55% ranked 47th among 60 backs with at least 25 targets last season.
Per FantasyData.com, Mathews' best fantasy seasons came in 2013 when he finished as RB12 and in 2011 when he finished as RB8 in standard scoring leagues.
Also according to FantasyData.com, among 121 backs who averaged at least 15 snaps per game and played in at least 8 games in 2015, Mathews' 42.1 fantasy points per 100 snaps ranked second behind only Karlos Williams' 42.8. In 2013, his 39.1 fantasy points per 100 snaps was tops among all backs to hit those baselines (and was safely higher than second-place LeGarrette Blount at 36.8).
Mathews has never scored more than seven rushing touchdowns in a season, which he's done only once, but he’s a threat to score from distance and in close. Of Mathews’ 29 career rushing touchdowns, 4 have come from 30 yards or longer, and 15 have come from inside the 10-yard line with 11 of those being from 3 yards or closer.
As mentioned above, Mathews has only played a full 16 game season once in his career. Just last season, Mathews missed three games with a concussion and was also on the injury report at times with a groin injury.
So, the injury concerns are valid, but injuries are difficult to predict. Darren McFadden was considered an injury risk until he played all 16 games last season. Remember when Rob Gronkowski was dubbed "injury-prone?"
In addition to the concerns surrounding Mathews’ injury history, the Eagles drafted Wendell Smallwood out of West Virginia in the fifth round. Smallwood, the 11th running back of the board, led the Big-12 in rushing last season.
Thus far, Smallwood has impressed as Eagles OTAs, and he’ll be a name to watch throughout training camp and preseason. However, as a rookie, Smallwood will still need to improve his pass protection before seeing significant playing time, and if the Eagles were set on replacing Mathews, they most likely wouldn’t have waited until the fifth round to draft a back.
Mathews' current ADP has him as nice value in the fifth round. He's currently being drafted amongst the likes of Jonathan Stewart, Jeremy Hill, Jay Ajayi, and Melvin Gordon. If Mathews can avoid injuries, he looks primed to take advantage. He's found himself in a system traditionally friendly to running backs, and he's the presumptive lead back heading into the season.
With that opportunity and the ability that Mathews has flashed over the years, including his 2015 success in an offense that struggled overall, Mathews is one of the running backs who could far outperform his draft position and surprise with another top-15 or even top-10 season in 2016.