All of the objections that you could raise about drafting Ryan Mathews would be perfectly reasonable and worth considering if he were going off the draft board anywhere near RB12. But he’s not. He’s currently being drafted in the range of RB26, which means that all of the things that you think about him have already been priced in to his draft spot, while none of his upside has. This is the situation that you should be waiting for in fantasy football. You should want to draft guys that have upside that everybody else has given up on.
Here’s the problem that you have with Ryan Mathews. You probably drafted him last year at RB13, which is where he was going. But that’s your fault because you took an injured player and then made assumptions about his ability to play well following that injury… those were assumptions you had no room to make. Mathews couldn’t have been any more injury prone when you pulled the trigger on him at RB13 than he is today when you’re scared of him at RB26 right? He’s the same guy. Only your perception of his injury proneness has changed and actually the market has adjusted to give you a big cushion if you want to take him now. I won’t even argue that Mathews isn’t injury prone because I don’t have to. He’s currently being drafted where the dregs of the “opportunity/no talent” running backs typically go.
I don’t know how much of Mathews’ injury proneness is real or how much is in our heads, but Reggie Bush is being drafted 9 RB spots in front of Mathews. Does anyone find that ironic? Here are Reggie Bush’s games played and Yards/Carry for his seasons before he turned 26.
Bush played in 16 games just once before he turned 26. He had one season of above average yards/carry and that was based on just 70 carries. Bush started his career with 3.6, 3.7 and 3.8 yards/carry. This same Reggie Bush, the Reggie Bush that they didn’t want in New Orleans and then didn’t want in Miami, is going 9 RB spots ahead of Ryan Mathews. The narrative regarding Bush early in his career would have been that he couldn’t stay on the field, while now the narrative is that Ryan Mathews can’t stay on the field but Reggie Bush can. For some reason, the narrative regarding a player’s ability to stay on the field seems like it works mostly in hindsight.
But the injury prone Ryan Mathews is also going 13 RB spots after a player that appeared in fewer games in 2012. Maurice Jones-Drew appeared in only 6 games in ‘12 compared to Mathews 12 games. MJD also scored just 1 rushing touchdown in ‘12, which means that if you adjusted for games played, he would have had 2 in 12 games. Ryan Mathews had 1 TD in 12 games. I can totally see why MJD is worth a 13 RB spot premium to Ryan Mathews. This is the same MJD that is turning 28 this year and has been a ticking injury time bomb going back to 2011, when he spent 7 weeks on the injury report. Of those 7 weeks spent on the injury report in ‘11, 6 of them were either Questionable or Doubtful. But yeah, I totally see why MJD is worth a 13 RB spot premium compared to Ryan Mathews.
Darren McFadden is going 7 RB spots in front of Ryan Mathews. I’ll assume I don’t have to remind you of McFadden’s injury history or history of poor play. I’ll assume you have nightmares/cold sweats to remind you of those things.
Chris Ivory is also being drafted in front of Ryan Mathews. Here is Ivory’s injury report status going back to his rookie year:
Chris Ivory Injury Report by Week
The problem with our perception of Ryan Mathews’ injury proneness is that it’s almost impossible for us to tease out where actual injury proneness ends and where our recency bias begins. Remember, Reggie Bush is made up of the same tissue and bones now that he was earlier in his career when the explanation for his injury proneness would have been that some bodies just experience more soft tissue damage than others.
It doesn’t matter whether or not you believe in injury proneness. You can still believe in injury proneness and you can still take Ryan Mathews at a discount to other players that have injury red flags in their file.
Let’s move on to the issue of Ryan Mathews’ production last year. It sucked. But there was a tiny amount of reason for optimism if we dig deep enough. Mathews played the following defenses in 2012 which all allowed fewer than 4 yards/carry on the season: TB, DEN (2X), PIT, and BAL. That’s 5 out of the 12 games he played in. Here is Mathews stat summary in those games:
But here is Mathews stat line average in the 7 games where he faced defenses that allowed more than 4 yards/carry on the season:
Whoa! It’s not awful. This stat split is admittedly cherry-picked, but I’m being transparent about how I’m cherry-picking at least. The two biggest objections to drafting Mathews are related to the potential for injuries and the perception that his 2012 season indicates that he just doesn’t have it. But his efficiency in 2012 wasn’t nearly as bad when he wasn’t facing stingy run defenses. Mathews’ 2012 season also took place amid the tire fire that was Norv Turner’s last season and where SD went from being a perennial top 10 run offense to being 31st in the league. I realize some of that was actually Mathews’ fault, but I’ll still cling to the point that you couldn’t really expect anything good to come out of the SD offense last year.
The reason that it’s worth rolling the dice on Mathews is because despite the risks that he poses (and to be clear, I’m not saying there are none, only that his risk is similar to guys going in front of him), the upside of the guy who was a top 15 NFL draft pick in 2010 is still there. Maybe a little of the shine has been rubbed off, but that’s the great part because it means you can actually get him at a discount. Mathews had an elite Speed Score coming out of college based on his 220 pound body and 4.37 40 time. He averaged over 6 yards per carry on over 500 college carries. He’s the starter on his own team. He’s being drafted at RB26. That’s so cheap that you can draft Mathews and then if he’s awful or gets hurt, it probably doesn’t even hurt you that much. But if he returns to the form that made him a top 10 fantasy back in 2011, guess who’s probably winning a fantasy league? (Hint: it has two thumbs).
Here’s an updated board that shows my draft plan round by round: