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Wednesday, August 14, 2013
Updated: August 15, 7:50 AM ET
Is Mathews actually underrated now?

By AJ Mass
ESPN.com

Is Ryan Mathews actually underrated now?

Fantasy Camp

Following a 2011 campaign in which he went to the Pro Bowl, optimism was certainly on the rise for San Diego Chargers running back Ryan Mathews. The positive buzz surrounding his strong season resulted in his being ranked as the No. 12 running back and the No. 30 player overall in the ESPN Fantasy staff's preseason top 300 in 2012.

However, if you were one of those fantasy owners who actually drafted Mathews last season, you might have felt that the name you actually called was Lemony Snicket. A series of unfortunate events seemed to follow Mathews all season long. First, he was injured in a minor car crash. Then, on his first carry of the preseason, he broke his collarbone, resulting in surgery that cost him the rest of training camp, as well as the first couple weeks of the regular season.

After battling back and working hard to try to get back to his pre-injury level of play, Mathews saw his season come to an abrupt end on Dec. 16, when he broke his other clavicle after just four carries against the Carolina Panthers. He finished the season with a lackluster 707 rushing yards on 184 carries along with 39 receptions for 232 yards and a single touchdown.

Suffice it to say, it is far from unexpected that there's not nearly as much optimism surrounding Mathews entering the 2013 season. However, it doesn't seem quite right that his current ADP of 64.6 places him as the No. 25 overall running back. That seems a bit harsh for a player who is just one year removed -- and an injury-ravaged year at that -- from a 1,000-yard season, in which he averaged just shy of five yards per carry.

For those concerned about the risk attached with drafting Mathews based on fears that he's simply going to shatter his collarbone halfway through Week 1, let's be clear on this issue. First of all, every player in the NFL is an injury risk and can get hurt on any play, regardless of the track record of durability.

Ryan Mathews
Ryan Mathews hopes to return to his 2011 form, when he totaled more than 1,500 yards from scrimmage.

Secondly, Mathews has participated in drills and played in the preseason. He has taken hits. If the San Diego Chargers thought for one moment that all it would take was a defensive lineman breathing hard on Mathews to cause him to fall to the ground in agony and require a trip to the injured reserve, they would not be letting him out on the field. So let's put that reason for lowering him on our draft boards off to the side, too.

Besides, if you're going to be the official spokesperson for not drafting an injury risk, then you'd have to be just as much of an advocate against Darren McFadden, who has missed at least three games in each of his five NFL seasons. And clearly, the collective consciousness of drafters has found no issue with selecting Run-DMC as the No. 17 overall running back, with an ADP of 37.9, almost three full rounds ahead of Mathews in a 10-team league.

From the get-go, it seemed that Mathews was doomed to be in Norv Turner's doghouse. In his rookie season, a penchant for putting the ball on the ground and struggles with pass protection resulted in his sitting on the sidelines as punishment for his football sins. As his career continued on, even after that 2011 Pro Bowl selection, Turner continued to slight Mathews. He got increasingly frustrated with his fumbles, and started Jackie Battle ahead of him in Week 4 last season, just because.

It was almost as if Turner had been expecting Mathews to replace LaDanian Tomlinson in his offense without skipping a beat, but those shoes were far too big to fill. No matter how well Mathews actually performed, he seemed to be branded as a disappointment by his head coach simply because he wasn't one of the league's all-time greats. But at last, Turner has gone and Mathews can finally remove his "scarlet letter of shame."

New head coach Mike McCoy has already said that he expects Mathews to "have a great year and be the guy" in his backfield. McCoy's offensive philosophy will also put greater emphasis on quarterback Philip Rivers to do the bulk of the "heavy lifting," so Mathews won't be tasked with carrying the team on his so-called brittle shoulders. Mathews simply has to find his holes and "get back to basics."

And for his own part, Mathews has not put as much of an emphasis on the weight room this season, as he had done in the past. Last year, Mathews wanted to add some bulk in order to better respond to the physical abuse that running backs endure on a weekly basis. We saw how that went. This season, Mathews is eschewing having more muscle in exchange for a return of elusiveness, which could well be the difference in his finding the holes, just as his new coach has requested.

Lastly, for those who are concerned that the arrival of Danny Woodhead would mean that there is a ceiling on Mathews' fantasy value since he's unlikely to play on passing downs, I'd simply ask, "What else is new?" Mathews already was losing those downs to Ronnie Brown last season and still managed to finish as the No. 31 running back in ESPN standard scoring. Give him the benefit of the doubt on similar performance over a full 16-game schedule and he certainly could have slipped into the final spot in the top 20.

Look, nobody is saying that Mathews is a fantasy first-rounder. There certainly are enough question marks surrounding him that taking him even in the fourth round might not be the wisest course of action. That said, the pendulum of hate seems to have gone way too far in the other direction.

I think it's far wiser to take a chance on a player who has proven in the past to at least being capable of gaining more than 1,500 combined yards than to roll the dice on unproven rookies such as Eddie Lacy and Le'Veon Bell or perennial second fiddles such as Chris Ivory and Lamar Miller, who have yet to actually prove they've got what it takes to be a No. 1 running back, rather than simply being anointed with those abilities by hopeful organizations with no other recourse.

Mathews has done it before, and that makes the chances of him doing it again this season far more likely than many of the other options being selected ahead of him. If he's still on the board when Round 5 comes along, don't hesitate to grab him. You'll be very glad you did.