Ryan Mathews could be the No. 1 fantasy football back this year

      May 17, 2012 @ 00:25:36 PDT

Ryan Mathews, RB, San Diego Chargers
Ryan Mathews is ready to shine in 2012

Poised to build on last year's 1,091-yard and six-touchdown rushing season, San Diego Chargers running back Ryan Mathews has a strong opportunity to be the No. 1 scoring running back in fantasy football leagues this year.

Mike Tolbert, who vultured plenty of touches and touchdowns the past two seasons, is no longer in San Diego, which leaves Mathews in an undisputed No. 1 role entering the 2012 NFL season. The Bolts did add veteran Ronnie Brown during the summer, but neither Brown nor the team's other unproven options are likely to vulture considerable touches.

In his first two seasons, Mathews flashed signs of brilliance and showed, at times, he is capable of being an every-down back. In addition to rushing 222 times (with a 4.9 yards-per-carry average) last season, he very quietly chipped in 50 receptions for 455 yards receiving. Those aren't shabby numbers considering Tolbert had 175 touches (121 rushes, 54 receptions).

Finding true feature backs in today's NFL is difficult for fantasy football players due to the wide-spread committee approaches around the league (some injuries to some key studs haven't helped matters, either). Mathews, for the first time in his career, has an opportunity to step forward and flourish in a feature role with the Chargers likely leaving the committee approach behind. Opportunity opens the door for success; Mathews now has the opportunity and it's his to run with.

The Chargers should be more competitive this season; some of their offseason retooling defensively should help. Playing with a lead has been a positive for Mathews: In seven losses last season, Mathews averaged 16.6 touches per game. In seven wins, he touched the ball an average of 22.3 times per game.

Other changes on the team could help Mathews propel forward as an elite fantasy back this year, too. Fullback Le'Ron McClain was added during the offseason; the bruiser (6-foot, 240 pounds) can open some big holes for Mathews by blowing up linebackers at the point of attack. Wideout Vincent Jackson is gone via free agency, putting newcomer Robert Meachem in a No. 1 role for the first time in his career. While I've always been a huge Meachem fan, he has to prove he can hold onto the football consistently and be a dependable target. If he struggles, it could lead to the Chargers focusing on the ground game to take pressure off of quarterback Philip Rivers and company. While still very solid, Antonio Gates, the veteran tight end, has lost a step and his wheels will never be the same again. This could lead to plenty of dump passes to Mathews as an outlet, which will be fantastic for his PPR value.

Under head coach Norv Turner, the Chargers have been amazingly consistent with scoring points. They've never finished worse than fifth in the league in offensive scoring under his tutoring, which points toward the running back position (i.e. Mathews) having plenty of shots to find the end zone. Chargers backs combined to score 18 TDs in '11, 20 TDs in '10, 23 in '09 and 21 in '08; good for an average of 20.5 per year. Mathews will be given the opportunity to punch quite a few in this year. Speaking of Turner, he said Mathews is a "guy who has that breakout, big-time year."

"Expectations are real high," Mathews said. "I'm in way better shape this time than I was last year and I just feel good about myself. I really do. I feel real confident and like I said my trainer Jeff has been helping me on the little things with ball security and working my way through tight spaces and explosion and stuff, so it's going to be a good deal and it's going to be real fun."

The only concern with Mathews remains his durability. He was on the injury report nine times as a rookie and found his way onto it five times a year ago, although he was probable for three of those games. In two years, he has missed six full games and parts of others; never an encouraging sign for an early-round draft choice. Playing through pain a year ago was encouraging however; and he has noted previously that he has learned how to treat his body better to handle the rigors of being an NFL back.

While the injury risk will remain until Mathews plays a few full seasons, his upside far outweighs the injury concern when it comes to selecting him high in fantasy football drafts this summer. If I find myself missing out on a Foster or McCoy, I'll have zero complaints walking away from my draft with Mathews as my No. 1 fantasy back this season and neither should you. Other owners are on the bandwagon, too, as his ADP has bounced up to 5.49 overall. If you want him this year, don't be afraid to pull the trigger very early in your draft.

If the stars align and he stays healthy, Mathews will be in the running to be the No. 1 fantasy back this year.

Unofficial conservative projections: 300 carries, 1,380 rushing yards and 12 rushing touchdowns to go along with 70 receptions, 525 yards receiving and two scores, which is just a bit higher than our official KFFL fantasy football projections place him.

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About Ryan R. Bonini

Founding KFFL in 1996, Bonini now serves as VP of Fantasy Sports Solutions for USA TODAY SPORTS, KFFL's parent company. Bonini was named 2009 Fantasy Football Writer of the Year by the FSWA, received honors with the Best Fantasy Football Series in '10 and was named into their Hall of Fame in '13.

His work has been found in USA TODAY Sports, Yahoo! Sports, FOX Sports, CBS Sports, NFL.com, and many others. He has also been featured on numerous radio programs around the country. Bonini is a member of the PFWA, FSWA and FSTA.

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