Ryan Mathews was not arrested yesterday. Therefore, we do not have to declare a moratorium on his career just yet. Had he been arrested, of course, then his career would have been over, only to be revived by a later news cycle. Since he is still playing in the NFL, though, it is a good time to ask whether he can bounce back from a disappointing 2012 season that saw him get hurt in the preseason, and struggle to get full touches while sometimes playing behind Jackie Battle. Mathews saw his total yards drop by almost 600 yards, in two fewer games, while he managed to score only one touchdown all season.
Mathews burned plenty of fantasy football owners, and it was just a year ago that he was being drafted in the same range as Marshawn Lynch. When I ran a list of comparable players for Lynch and Mathews, there were more one hit wonders in the Mathews group, players that were a year younger. Will Mathews be part of that group when we look back, or can he turn it around and rebound back to 2011, when he was selected to a pro bowl?
I went back through all running back seasons since 1970, and found all, with at least 10 games played, where a back had between 90 and 130 yards from scrimmage per game at age 24 (Mathews was at 110.4 yards per game in 2011), and then looked at the fifteen with the largest decline in yards per game while playing at least 10 games again (to remove the serious injuries early in the year at age 25).
So yes, this whole post was just one giant ruse to talk about Craig James and link to the immortal “Craig James is Not a Boise State Broncos Fan” thread. Ricky Bell died tragically at a young age, and his decline after age 24 was related to health issues. Peyton Hillis, of course, was on the cover of Madden after his 2010 season.
All told, this group had a median fantasy rank at running back of 8.5 in their age 24 season (Mathews was 7th), dropped to 23.0 at age 25, and to 23.5 at age 26. If you were to try to project an age 26 yards per game, setting an over/under of what they did at age 25 was a good start. Ottis Anderson, Lawrence McCutcheon, and Sam “Bam” Cunningham were the largest bounce backs at age 26.
With Danny Woodhead on board to take some touches along with Ronnie Brown, I don’t see Mathews rebounding all the way back to averaging over 110 yards a game, but I do think he can be better than last year, and part of his decline in fantasy rank–touchdowns–should rebound to a more normal number in 2013. He’s currently going off the board in early drafts in about the RB27 range, meaning he is being valued as one of the six least valuable “lead running backs” in current drafting. I understand the hesitance, but I think the risk factor is already built into that number and he is a decent gamble this year at that price, if you can stomach waiting for the next injury to happen and trusting that sometimes it’s hard to project who is injury prone. Players with an average return at age 26 of a 23rd place finish should actually be drafted in the late teens, and I think Mathews is a RB2 option if you want to be patient at the position and take other positions after drafting your top back.