Everyone in fantasy has been spending a lot of time debating the value of Ryan Mathews. Those of us who believe in him this season have a certain rhetoric about how this season is the season for Mathews to really take off and we have a plethora of statistics and ideas about why he is a valuable running back this season. Interestingly, almost everyone in the fantasy football community still have this separation between the big three (Arian Foster, Ray Rice, and LeSean McCoy) and everyone else in the running back category. I am here to compare the 2012 expectations for LeSean McCoy and Ryan Mathews and create a discussion about whether we should be ranking Mathews in that top running back tier, and whether Mathews might even be worthy of a top-3 selection. I'll do the research, hopefully present it in a fair manner, and then turn the final decision over to you (although it wouldn't be any fun if I didn't give my opinion).
It is very widely accepted that a running back who gets more carries has a better chance of getting more yards. That is not really a debatable fact, even though YPC (yards per carry) can vary widely between running backs. For these backs, historically, the YPC does not vary widely. LeSean McCoy's career YPC is 0.110 better than Ryan Mathews. That means that for every 100 carries they each get, McCoy will outpace Mathews by 11 yards, which is largely insignificant over the course of a season. For all intents and purposes, we will consider them to be equally effective in YPC, but feel free to tack those 11 yards on to McCoy for every 100 carries; it is perfectly fair, but definitely within the margin of error.
Last season, LeSean McCoy had a respectable 273 carries, which was tied for 7th most in the NFL with Cedric Benson, who will almost certainly not be getting those carries again. McCoy has stated that he is fine if he gets fewer touches in 2012, and Andy Reid said that he thought LeSean McCoy carried too much of the workload in 2011. Those are two scary thoughts, from a fantasy perspective, but I think they are misrepresentations of the situation. In complete honesty, I believe that both McCoy and Reid plan on keeping McCoy around the same number of carries. These statements simply mean that he will not be expected to carry the ball more in 2012 than he did in 2011. You can take these testaments however you want to, but it would be irresponsible to suggest that McCoy will get less than 250-275 carries this season. They might just take McCoy off the field on non-rushing downs more often than they did in 2011.
Ryan Mathews only registered 222 carries in 2011 (good enough for 16th overall), but he was 10th in rushing yards, which is certainly a positive. Mathews has receiver high praise from Norv Turner (a stark contrast from the beginning of camp in 2011), who expects him to be the featured back in the Chargers' offense. The numbers are a bit less certain here, but we can definitely say that 275 carries is the low end of the spectrum here. Norv Turner loves featured backs, and I think 300+ carries is probably just the starting point in Norv Turners' mind. You can disagree with this assessment, but I think expecting less that 300 carries is a bit disingenuous.
From a pure carry-volume standpoint, Ryan Mathews seems to have a slight advantage over LeSean McCoy, but has a much higher ceiling. While McCoy is very unlikely to reach 300 total carries, Mathews is more likely to top 300 carries than not if he stays healthy.
A lot of the people I talk to point out McCoy's prowess for catching screen passes as a reason to have him so highly ranked, but other people know that this is a fallacy. As we discussed earlier, the Eagles are looking to reduce McCoy's reps, but we don't think that means he will get fewer carries. I also don't think he will get fewer receptions, but I don't think he will have more receptions. In 2010, McCoy had an amazing season with 78 receptions, but that was book-ended by two sub-50 reception seasons. I think 50 receptions (two more than in 2011) is a perfectly reasonable expectation for McCoy. McCoy averaged under 7.0 yards per reception in 2011, but we should take his career average here of 7.3 yards per reception, meaning that he should get ~365 receiving yards in 2012. That number might be up or down, but should be a reasonable ballpark estimate.
Ryan Mathews is a better receiver and should have more opportunity than McCoy to excel in this category. Mathews had 50 receptions with a 9.1 yard per reception number in 2011, and that was with Mike Tolbert getting 54 receptions of his own. While it is extremely unlikely that Mathews will grab all of those receptions, I believe that we should expect to see 70 receptions out of Mathews this season. Turner and Rivers love to use the running backs in the passing game (LaDainian Tomlinson had 100 receptions in 2003), and this season should be no different. Mathews has an 8.3 yard per reception average in his career, but that is difficult to maintain (if he goes 9.1 ypr again this season, he will be amazing) so we will cut it down to 8.0 yards per reception. That would give Mathews a conservative 560 receiving yards; another reason to put Mathews over McCoy.
By this point, everyone who disagrees with this article either stopped reading or is mentally (or verbally) berating me for skewing the facts towards Mathews. I have not skewed the facts, we just haven't reached the places where McCoy excels yet.
LeSean McCoy had an amazing season with 20 total touchdowns in 2011, but most people would agree that duplicating those numbers is...unlikely. In his career, McCoy has scored a touchdown once every 22.7 carries. If we extrapolate that value over a season with 275 carries, McCoy would score just over 12 touchdowns (12.13 to be exact). I don't think there is anyone who would say that 12 touchdowns is unreasonable, and is probably a very good estimate for McCoy in terms of rushing touchdowns. In terms of receiving touchdowns, McCoy had an amazing season with 3 receiving touchdowns. His career average is one touchdown per 33.2 receptions, meaning that he is unlikely to get another 3 touchdowns in the passing game. One or two should be expected based on his history, giving him 13-14 total expected touchdowns in 2012 on 275 carries and 50 receptions. I have given you the tools to adjust that number up or down based on your personal usage estimates.
Mathews is less adept at scoring touchdowns. Now you can make the case that this is because of Tolbert, but let's not do that here. If you want to make that adjustment, feel free, but I am going to go off career numbers only. Those numbers put Mathews at one rushing touchdown per 29.2 carries. In 300 carries he should get just over 10 touchdowns, and we can use that as a baseline. Mathews has never scored a receiving touchdown in 72 career receptions, but he has racked up 600 receiving yards. I am going to go out on a limb and say that he will be able to grab one receiving touchdown, based on the fact that Mike Tolbert had two receiving touchdown in 2011. You can scrap this if you disagree with it, but I would give Mathews an expectation of 11 total touchdowns with 300 carries and 70 receptions. We can definitely say that McCoy has a better nose for the end zone so far in his career.
Here is the biggest question mark, because it is not actually possible to make an accurate prediction of future injuries; we can only go on history and broad trends.
LeSean McCoy has missed two games in the last two seasons, but both of them were the last game of the NFL season. The vast majority of leagues end before week 17, so only count this against him if your league championship is in week 17. McCoy is very durable.
Ryan Mathews has had injury trouble in his short career, but it is not nearly as bad as most people make it out to be. Yes, Mathews missed 4 games as a rookie, but most rookies are not necessarily ready for the pro game, and I am willing to give most any player a pass on their rookie season. Rookie seasons do not have a whole lot of predictive value on future success. Mathews did have a knee injury in his sophomore year in college, but he missed only one game due to a concussion in his junior season after which he entered the NFL. In 2011 Mathews missed two total games, but one of them was in week 17. If we are going to throw it out for McCoy, we should throw it out for Mathews as well, meaning that we can only count one full missed game against Mathews in the 2011 season. There has further been much made of Mathews' inability to finish games, and it should be mentioned but not stretched. There is certainly a risk of this happening, but it definitely didn't help that the Chargers had such a great back to take over when Mathews got dinged up. I'm not going to try to convince anyone that there is no injury risk with Mathews, because that is completely false. Mathews has a propensity for getting minor injuries, but he is coming into camp in much better shape this season, and did stay mostly healthy in 2011.
We have to give McCoy the big advantage here, but the worst injuries are the unexpected ones. I would say to expect Mathews to miss at least one valuable game during the season, but a long term injury from either player would be a surprise. Mathews does not have the same kind of injury history that McFadden has.
Statistically speaking, Mathews has a much higher ceiling than McCoy, but carries marginally more risk. McCoy definitely has a special nose for the end zone, but Mathews should get enough carries to balance this lacking. Furthermore, the loss of Mike Tolbert might lead to a higher touchdown ratio from Mathews in 2012. Mathews will likely touch the ball ~50 more times in 2012 than McCoy, barring injury.
Honestly, I would take Mathews over McCoy based on the fact that Mathews has such a high ceiling. I would not disagree with anyone who too McCoy over Mathews because of the stability with McCoy, but I would disagree with someone who said that they were taking McCoy because he has more upside.
Finally, depending on how much you agree with the assumptions made in this post, and there was admittedly plenty of assumption, Mathews should be inducted into the top tier of running backs with the knowledge that he might miss a game and not finish another game or two.
Based on these assumptions,
Ryan Mathews: 300 carries for 1,397 yards, 70 receptions for 560 yards, 11 total touchdowns and 2 lost fumbles for 257.7 fantasy points (233.5 including injuries)
LeSean McCoy: 275 carries for 1,310 yards, 50 receptions for 365 yards, 13.5 total touchdowns and 1 lost fumble for 246.5 fantasy points with no injury considerations.
Pretty much even.
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