When former San Diego Chargers running back signed with the Philadelphia Eagles back in 2015, he was actually considered the second-tier back to DeMarco Murray, a back who had also been signed away from his former team that same offseason.
But despite starting as the backup, Mathews shined brightest for Philadelphia last season as the six-year veteran rushed for 539 yards and 6 touchdowns on 106 attempts, averaging 8 fantasy points per game.
Perhaps one of the keys to Mathews flourishing was former Eagles coach Chip Kelly's system, which valued inside runners that could make quick lateral cuts in traffic. Mathews never possessed jaw-dropping agility or elusiveness, but does have good agility and his size at 6'0, 220 lbs allows him to maintain pretty good balance through contact. Overall, he's a good but not great back that can consistently churn out 4-yard gains up the middle.
When it comes to his fantasy situation in 2016, Mathews is the clear front runner in the Philadelphia backfield with the departure of Murray to the Tennessee Titans. 33-year-old Darren Sproles is expected to remain the team's change-of-pace back and rookie Wendall Smallwood has drawn some intrigue as a darkhorse that could push for touches if Sproles and Mathews come out sluggish early on.
One thing working in Mathews' favor is the Eagles situation at offensive line. Overall, the unit ranked 12th according to Pro Football Focus in 2015. While they've dropped off since leading LeSean McCoy to a rushing title in 2013, they'll still return Pro Bowler Jason Peters at left tackle and Jason Kelce at center. They added former Houston Texan Brandon Brooks at left guard, signing him to a $40 million deal this past March. Brooks brings some much needed youth in the trenches at just 26 years old and only missed four games in three seasons with Houston. Overall, this offensive line likely won't be incredible, but it won't be dismal either and should carve out some run lanes for Mathews.
Despite the offensive line being a bright spot, the Eagles could really struggle to score in 2016 due to their lackluster skill players. No. 1 wide receiver Jordan Matthews is still struggling as an outside wide receiver and may be relegated to the slot once again. Second-year wideout Nelson Agholor is coming off a disappointing rookie season where he dealt with injuries and is now battling issues off the field. So the Eagles will likely need to place Reuben Randle, Chris Givens or Josh Huff on the outside with Agholor. Teams won't be scared to single cover those wideouts which makes it easier to stop the run.
When it comes to his own talent, Mathews showed he can be a valuable feature back in the past but his most prolific seasons were sporadic and didn't instill much trust in him on a year-to-year basis. He eclipsed the 1,000-yard rushing mark twice in five years with San Diego and never came close to scoring double-digit touchdowns. Never considered a goal-line running back, Mathews instead did most of his damage between the 20s which limits his upside in fantasy.
Injuries have also been a problem throughout Mathews' career. He suffered a concussion and missed three games in 2015. He missed 10 games in 2014 with an MCL injury and three games with a fractured collarbone in 2012. He played in all 16 games just once in his career, making him a liability for a full season if you end up drafting him.
Knowing Mathews struggles to stay healthy in a feature back role, there's a good chance first-year coach Doug Pederson opts to go with a committee-style attack, which could hurt Mathews chances as even a steady RB2. Right now Mathews is being drafted near players like Jay Ajayi, Matt Forte, Jonathan Stewart, and Matt Jones. He's actually a good bargain there given his situation as a possible lead back.
You know what you're getting from Mathews at this point. He's a solid 60-70 yard per game guy with the occasional 100-yard game thrown in. Injuries will likely keep him out of your lineup at times but he will be a good flex/RB2 against weaker run defenses in 2016.
On this episode of the Fantasy Hot Read, Adam and George discuss several rookie running backs and wide receivers who could become fantasy relevant based on their situation with their respective teams.
On this podcast, the Helpers discuss why the Cleveland Browns could potentially provide a lot of fantasy value this season, more so at the running back position than anything.
Wide receivers being drafted outside the positional top 50 that are poised to crush their average draft position (ADP)
Torrey Smith | San Francisco 49ers
Current ADP: WR 51 | Round 11-12
Last season, on a terrible 49ers team, Torrey Smith struggled to find consistent fantasy production and finished just inside the top 50 WRs in standard leagues. The 2016 season brings a new coach, a new offense, and potentially a new fantasy lease on life. Chip Kelly has shown that he loves taking shots deep (which is really where Torrey Smith makes his money as a pass catcher), and the Kelly offense has produced a Top-25 wide receiver in every season Chip’s been calling plays in the NFL (DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, and Jordan Matthews). Combine that new offense with what should be a struggling defense and an overall bad team, and you have a recipe for fantasy goodness. Being taken as a WR5 in most leagues, Smith has the upside to obliterate his value at the position.
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Devin Funchess | Carolina Panthers
Current ADP: WR 61 | Round 13
As a rookie, Devin Funchess struggled to get on the field initially, and then struggled to consistently catch the ball on a team that was fairly devoid of pass catching playmakers. Couch that with the fact that it was widely reported Funchess struggled to pick up the offense, and his inconsistent (and relatively paltry) fantasy production begins to make perfect sense. Heading into his sophomore season, Funchess seems to have a strong grasp of the playbook and has reportedly been tearing up OTAs in the recent weeks. The return of Kelvin Benjamin is only going to help the second-year breakout candidate as KB’s likely going to be the focal point of defenses attempting to defend the pass. Funchess is a sneaky bet to flirt with Top-36 wide receiver value and is going undrafted in most 10 team re-draft formats.
Every year we look for a running back that can emerge from nowhere and be a Top-12 option at year’s end. One of the major issues I encounter when talking with fantasy owners is the tendency to be fairly myopic when evaluating this specific position. The idea that a player is/isn’t good seems to be the main factor when owners chase running back talent. However—especially at this position—this couldn’t be further from the truth. I generally discuss the idea of looking at each factor as a variable in an equation that we hope equals fantasy success. You can draw a fairly straight line between outstanding situations and backups that have come in and found success with a regular work load. This isn’t a fluke. This is largely because talent, while incredibly important, is only one factor that owners should look at when trying to land that ever-elusive late-round lottery ticket running back.
Running back, perhaps more than any other relevant fantasy position, is as dependent on situation as anything else. Situation often leads to opportunity, and in fantasy football, opportunity is the most valuable commodity. Fantasy owners need to ask themselves a whole host of questions before throwing those later round darts in an effort to mitigate as much risk as possible:
1) What is the depth chart ahead of a player like? Is there an abundance of talented runners ahead of a player, and what skills do those players possess? Does your player have any traits that might make him a strong bet to play on 3rd downs or in short yardage?
2) What kind of offense is the player going to be involved in? If the team is regularly in the top of rushing attempts, you can probably bet that a variance of any significant degree is unlikely.
3) What kind of tie does the running back have to the team as it is currently constructed? Did the current coaching staff hand pick this player or is he a hold-over. If you think that last piece is unimportant, simply fire up some of the Indianapolis Colts recent game tape where Trent Richardson was given every opportunity to continue running up the backs of his offensive lineman. While a tie to a coaching staff may seem trivial—it isn’t. That little bit of extra work is opportunity, and opportunity is often the difference between success and failure in the NFL.
4) What is the current state of the team’s offensive line? We saw Darren McFadden have a career year behind that mauling Dallas Cowboy line. Conversely, we saw DeMarco Murray lay an absolute egg when he headed to the Philadelphia Eagles and their far inferior offensive line. As a Seahawks fan I remember vividly what happened after Shaun Alexander received his massive pay day, and his offensive line pieces subsequently began being sniped by other teams. He was truly awful. If you buy into this offensive line theory, then you likely have Ezekiel Elliot as a top overall player in re-draft leagues–as I do. Look around the league at the terrible offensive line units and try to find three running backs that are appealing when running behind them. It’s not easy to do.
5) Who is the quarterback? While the position that effectively can take opportunity away from a running back may seem like a weird one to evaluate when looking for the lottery running back, it’s imperative for several reasons—not the least of which is that if the quarterback stinks the defense doesn’t really have to account for them. A healthy dose of stacked boxes is almost impossible for a running back to overcome (outside of the most elite runners a la Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Charles types). You want the quarterback to be a competent player that forces defenses to respect him and the threat of a passing game.
6) Can he catch? Will he be given the opportunity to catch? A running back who leaves the field when a team “may” be passing sees a massive drop in value. As such, running backs with decent hands become much more valuable in both PPR and standard leagues. Receptions are simply another form of opportunity, and if your running back is strong running routes out of the backfield, it’s more likely than not that he will be matched up with an athletically inferior linebacker. The result is often a chunk play that often rewards owners with the same amount of points that they would have gotten with multiple rushes on a single play.
7) What’s he cost? It’s easy to get caught up in the “real” NFL portion when we are putting together our lists. Skills, situation, and surroundings are imperative. That said, none of these matter if the players price, or Average Draft Position (ADP) is far too rich. Every player has a line that they reach where they are both a value and a risk. Investing significant draft capital in players that at the very best may be a recipe for disaster. Don’t let your love of a significant player cause you to overpay. I try and enter every draft with tiers or a tailored pricing guide so that I have a ceiling on values for every player I may consider drafting. Overpaying for a running back is the quickest way to create deficiencies at other positions. And if last season taught us anything, it’s that the beating the running backs take lead to injuries, and others will step up and fill the position.
These are a few of the factors I consider when looking at taking running backs that aren’t “sure things” (as much any runner can be a sure thing). Below are a few names of running backs I am monitoring this offseason, along with a short description about why.
C.J. Prosise | Seattle Seahawks
Prosise was a 3rd round pick for the Seahawks in this year’s draft, and was among three running backs they selected during the 2016 NFL draft. If a team tells you what they really think with their draft strategy, then fantasy owners couldn’t have received a clearer message from the team about Thomas Rawls and his recovery. While Rawls was outstanding in limited work last year, it was just that, limited work. Add that to his ankle injury, of which the severity has been very poorly reported, and you have a player just learning the position that has the build of an every down back in Prosise. At worst he’s going to dominate the pass catching role in Seattle’s backfield. At his ceiling, he will eventually prove he is the heir apparent to Marshawn Lynch and go on to lead one of the most productive backfields in the league in touches.
Wendell Smallwood | Philadelphia Eagles
A slight runner out of West Virginia, Smallwood landed in a great situation. The Eagles took him in the first draft of the new coaching regime and the team looks set up to be throw a ton this season. If you squint your eyes when looking at Smallwood, you can see a situation where he leads this team in carries. Ryan Mathews has struggled to stay healthy, and the idea that Philadelphia is going to willingly give Mathews 250+ touches would seem like a recipe for collar-bone disaster. Smallwood doesn’t have a history of flashy or jaw-dropping plays, but he is an incredibly productive running back. If he can add a little weight in the offseason it wouldn’t be a surprise to seem him start the year as a legit change of pace runner in that offense. And should Mathews suffer an injury, it’s absolutely possible that Smallwood takes that job and runs with it.
Keith Marshall | Washington
It wasn’t that long ago that Marshall was a higher rated prospect than Todd Gurley. A knee injury and a mediocre college season later, Marshall found himself a 7th round pick of Washington in the 2016 draft. The two things that Marshall has going for him are the fact that he is still an incredibly electric athlete (his combine metrics were among the best in the class), and the fact that Washington has hitched it’s wagon to a second-year player in Matt Jones that had some real issues with ball security and overall effectiveness last season. Bottom line, Jones was not a very good player for large stretches last season. When he did seem to make a “splash play,” he often punctuated it by coughing up the football. While a late round or UDFA player leading a team in carries seems like a stretch to some, we need only look at the recent NFL data to see it happens much more often than we realize. In fact, his team did it only 3 seasons ago with the recently jettisoned Alfred Morris. Don’t forget that in his freshman season, Marshall had 850 yards and 9 TDs from scrimmage on only 128 total touches. The talent is absolutely there.
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It’s always exhilarating when you draft a player who flew under the radar then watch him take off during the season—giving you bragging rights over all your friends.
Each year, a running back seems to possess that mystical power. Ameer Abdullah looked like one of those players last season, until he struggled with fumbles. The Lions staff didn’t want him involved in the offense for any reason, ultimately leaving those once-excited fantasy owners with sour tastes in their mouths.
But there’s always another guy to be intrigued by, and Baltimore Ravens rookie running back Kenneth Dixon possesses all those potential traits in a slightly different way than Abdullah did last year, which leads him into sleeper territory this season.
An exciting player with very good quickness when changing direction, Dixon can elude defenders in ways few running backs in this draft class can. While he’s not an overwhelmingly powerful runner standing at 5′10, 215 lbs, he runs with a sense of toughness and decisiveness that can help him win 1-on-1 battles despite his lack of size.
Also a gifted receiver, Dixon will be able to assert himself in the short passing game on screen passes and also has the ability to catch the ball over his shoulder on wheel routes. He was considered one of the best receiving backs coming out of the draft. We’ve seen young running backs have PPR (points per reception) value despite not being considered a lead back. Duke Johnson on the Cleveland Browns was an example of this last season playing behind Isaiah Crowell, as was Charles Sims behind Doug Martin for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
With his current ADP at RB55, Dixon is being drafted in the same range as Ronnie Hillman, Kenyan Drake, and Jordan Howard. All of those running backs are currently backups like Dixon, but there’s reason to believe Baltimore’s fourth-round pick has more opportunity than any of those mentioned above. Ravens top back, Justin Forsett, will be 31 years old in October and is due $3 million in 2017, which means his time as a lead back is likely nearing its end. This alone makes Dixon a must-own in dynasty leagues.
The rest of the backfield includes a slew of familiar names including Buck Allen, Lorenzo Taliaferro, former Top-5 overall pick Trent Richardson, and Cleveland Browns castoff Terrance West. None of these players poses much of a threat to Dixon’s status as a potential lead back since they don’t bring the same skill set that the former LA Tech star does.
Overall, Dixon is one of the better flier backs to take in your draft this season. He brings a variety of skills to the table that has translated to solid fantasy production in the past. There’s opportunity for him to immediately start the season as a backup and he may end up assuming a larger role a year from now due to Forsett’s contract situation. There’s little chance any other running back ends up stealing carries away from Dixon this season.
Every year we see someone’s season cut short by injury. There were several in 2015, but the players below have a chance to come back and have a real impact in their post-injury season.
Jordy Nelson | WR | Green Bay Packers
Jordy Nelson has been one the best wide receivers in fantasy football for the last half decade. He’s had almost a full year to recover from a clean ACL tear and finds himself returning to a Green Bay Packers team that was a woeful underperformer in 2015. Aaron Rodgers may be the best quarterback in the NFL right now and he loves peppering Nelson with targets when the two are on the field. Combine that with a rejuvenated running game, and Nelson is set for a monster season that paints a Top-10 WR finish as the floor for me.
Jamaal Charles | RB | Kansas City Chiefs
Jamaal Charles suffered his second ACL tear last season. Kansas City went on to utilize a RB rotation that led them to a playoff win (it was actually a drubbing). Those two tidbits are the only ammunition that Charles detractors have when trying to dump on the superstar. The good news for fantasy owners is that Charles has been incredibly productive with 16ish touches in his career and his career yards per carry is among the best in NFL history. I expect Andy Reid to continue to ride Charles as a feature back, and I struggle to find six running backs currently in the NFL that I have more faith in when it comes to consistent fantasy production. Besides, the NFL as a whole has moved more towards the dreaded running back by committee-RBBC.
Kevin White | WR | Chicago Bears
Last year, for me, the question was who would be the third best rookie wide receiver of the 2015 draft class, because the spot behind Amari Cooper was firmly occupied by athletic juggernaut Kevin White. After missing the entire 2015 campaign with a foot fracture, a fully healthy White is returning to a lineup that sees him partnered with superstar wide receiver Alshon Jeffery and the perpetually underrated Jay Cutler. Without a bell cow running back (the jury is still very much out on Jeremy Langford as Matt Forte is now a New York Jet) and positioned opposite a middling defense, White is poised to see a healthy amount of targets in what will really be his first NFL season. Don’t forget, Chicago lost one of its most effective pass catching options as they sent Zach Miller to injured reserve in mid-June.
Franco Harris in 1983, John Henry Johnson in 1962 and John Riggins in 1984. Those three running backs all share one thing in common — they were the only RBs to rush for more than 1,000 yards after turning 33 years old.
Frank Gore, the current starting running back for the Indianapolis Colts, is also 33 years old. If you're looking to draft Gore to your fantasy team this season at his more than reasonable ADP of RB26, keep in mind that while you're getting good value at that price, you're also wagering Gore will do something only three running backs in NFL history have done.
Gore rushed for 967 yards last season and finished with six touchdowns. So while it's safe to say he hasn't completely lost his ability to produce, there's always a chance he drops off or at the very least needs to shoulder less of the workload. This creates a chance for someone else to enter the fray, and that someone in this case is current backup Josh Ferguson.
Opportunity is definitely there for the undrafted back out of Illinois even aside from Gore's age. With Robert Turbin, Jordan Todman, Trey Williams and Tyler Varga rounding out the backfield, there's no back that really stands to see any meaningful carries in the backup role. So Ferguson should likely enter 2016 as the clear No. 2 back.
In terms of what he brings to the table, Ferguson stands 5'10, 200 lbs and doesn't play any more powerful than his weight would indicate. He's not a strong finisher at the point of contact and will likely struggle to create yards after contact at the NFL level especially when a linebacker or defensive lineman squares up and hits him directly.
However, you don't need to be an overwhelmingly powerful running back to make a fantasy impact or even be an effective runner. We've seen many running backs such as Danny Woodhead and Duke Johnson bring tremendous value as receiving backs with limited success running the ball.
Ferguson has some traits that translate well and he's worth taking a flier on for a variety of reasons. For one, his ability to stick his foot in the ground at cut up field is very good. You could argue he's one of the quickest backs among the rookie running back class in terms of sudden acceleration. You will see him elude defenders at times on inside runs and in the open field because it's very tough for a linebacker or defensive lineman to mirror that quickness. You'll see defenders struggle to get a clean hit on him at times as well which could lead to big plays in the open field.
Second, he's a proven receiver out of the backfield. While at Illinois, he had back-to-back 50 catch seasons and the Colts are one of most pass-heavy teams in the NFL when Andrew Luck is under center. The Colts also upgraded their offensive line this past offseason through the draft, which was one of their biggest weaknesses in 2015. If they can keep Luck healthy, it's likely you'll see Indy jump out to early leads against weaker teams, which could lead to more opportunities for Ferguson in the second half since the Colts will likely chew up clock and keep Gore on the sideline to avoid injury and also keep his carries down.
There's a lot of opportunity in the Colts backfield on an offense with one of the most talented quarterbacks in the league throwing the ball. Ferguson's traits will translate very well in that offense and all he'll need is an opportunity to prove himself. Gore's age increases the likelihood of that opportunity happening. Draft Ferguson in the late rounds of your draft for potential value.
Rookie running back Devontae Booker has been one of the more polarizing draft prospects at the position this offseason. But there's good reason to believe he could be fantasy relevant this season and maybe, just maybe, snatch the starting position away from current Denver back, C.J. Anderson. Anderson was handed the keys to Denver's offense last season after going on a tear at the end of the 2014 season, but he didn't exactly flourish in his new role.
He finished the year with 720 rushing yards and 5 rushing touchdowns to go along with 25 catches for 183 yards and zero receiving touchdowns. He ended up ranking 31st overall among running backs in fantasy points for standard scoring. Some argue Anderson's struggles were a result of injury, and they have some merit. Anderson battled foot injuries early in the season which slowed his progress. In each of his first 3 games, he didn't eclipse more than 30 yards rushing.
To be fair, Anderson was saddled with tough matchups against daunting run defenses such as Baltimore, Kansas City, and Detroit to start the season. But if you want to be considered a true feature back in your offense, you have to be effective against good defenses. So Anderson's subpar performances against good teams makes you wonder if he can be a true feature back in the offense. His injuries in the early stages of the season also don't bode well for his durability.
Some argue that Anderson played his best football down the stretch last season, and they're right. Anderson scored four of his five total touchdowns in the last five games of the season. However, he needed overtime against New England to post his only multiple touchdown game of the season.
Being a true feature back that can handle 15-20 carries per game is a grueling task that few, if any, running backs can effectively handle each week. Anderson showed last season that he can play well in spurts, but might not be the back Denver designates as its bell cow unless he can consistently perform at the level he showed near the end of the season.
Since durability and consistency concerns are there with Anderson, it's a good idea to draft Booker. Booker brings the vision and cutting ability needed in Gary Kubiak's zone-blocking offense, and he also has great receiving ability out of the backfield. Denver will be a more run-heavy offense this season since Mark Sanchez and Paxton Lynch will be vying for snaps at quarterback.
Lynch is a rookie and will go through his growing pains, while Sanchez has struggled as a starter and likely won't be relied upon as the team's primary source of offense. Look for Booker in the last few rounds of your draft for a chance at some solid production if Anderson is slow out of the gate—or gets hurt.