San Diego Chargers: Ryan Mathews Won't Transform into an Elite Back in 2012

Michael SchotteyNFL National Lead WriterMay 28, 2012

If Norv Turner and the San Diego Chargers hope Ryan Mathews joins the elite class of NFL running backs this season, they are going to be sorely disappointed.

Mathews, drafted 12th overall in the 2010 NFL draft, has been good so far in his NFL career, but many feel his career has been stymied by the platoon role Turner and the Chargers have employed. Now, with Mike Tolbert headed to the Carolina Panthers, his head coach thinks he's ready for the next level:

“I personally think he’s ready to take that next step, that means, to me, the production goes way up, and he’s more of the guy that is on the field most of the time. I think he’s grown a lot in terms of understanding his responsibility when the ball is in his hand.”

The problem is, Mathews just isn't that guy.

At Fresno State, he was the man. First-team All-WAC in his junior season and tracking down LaDainian Tomlinson in the record books, Mathews decided to skip his senior year and head to the draft. Financially, he made the right decision; it's not clear if the Chargers can say the same.

The NFL combine vaulted Mathews' stock from the late-first/early second, and that should have been a red flag. Yes, Mathews passes "the look test" (or "underwear Olympics") as much as anyone, but his time at Fresno State didn't show a guy who was running in the 4.3s. Rather, one saw a linear runner, more in the high 4.4s to mid 4.5s, right where Mathews ran at his pro day.

Apparently for the Chargers, that didn't matter.

Save that one, elite, 4.37 40 and a great broad jump, all of Mathews' numbers screamed, "slightly better than average." The tape was even less impressive.

On tape, Mathews overpowered defenders who would never play in the NFL. He sprinted past defensive backs who are now mechanics or finishing up law school. He showed little in the way of elite change-of-direction or versatility needed from an elite NFL back. The Chargers took the plunge anyway and haven't gotten the return on their investment that they were hoping for.

Frankly, they might never get it.

Don't misunderstand; Mathews has been a solid pro and is clearly the No. 1 dog in the Chargers backfield. Overall, he is better than Tolbert and the Chargers did what they had to do in order to see what they could get out of Mathews in a more clearly defined role. Yet, there is little to suggest Mathews' productivity will increase with more snaps.

Football Outsiders, who like to quantify this sort of thing with metrics, measured Mathews' total efficiency as fourth in the league. Not bad, right? However, his efficiency-per-play dropped to 10th overall. Not bad, but not nearly as good as fourth.

The real trouble comes in when FO ranks the Chargers' offensive line independent of the rushers. San Diego's line ranked eighth in the league, which means Mathews has been getting some solid help.

Over on another site, Pro Football Focus ranked Mathews 16th out of all backs who participated in at least 25 percent of their team's snaps. Notably, Tolbert was ranked 27th. Breaking down how they graded Mathews, he ranked ninth as a receiver and 26th as a rusher. Again, ahead of Tolbert in both areas, but not exactly a sparkling resume for a guy the Chargers are hitching their wagon to.

All of this boils down to roughly the same exact story I've been telling all along. Mathews is a good, but not great, back who is probably just enough to get a team through football games in the pass-happy NFL. He isn't special—numerous guys like Mathews come out every year in the draft and don't need to be handed franchise money or drafted in the first round.

Really, what Mathews is, is a bargain, and anyone who knows A.J. Smith, knows that's probably why Mathews is getting his chance as the main guy. He's just another in a long line of Chargers backs that can have the spotlight right up until they start asking to get paid.

In 2012, Mathews' base salary will be $712,750 and won't get much higher than $1 million throughout the course of his current contract. Because of the current climate of the NFL's running back market and Mathews' aforementioned lack of elite talent, he might never see big money again in his career. 

So, if Chargers fans can tune out Turner's offseason platitudes and take what they can get out of Mathews—solid rushing and great receiving at value prices—they should be happy this season. If they take Turner at his word and expect Mathews to take some "next step," they will be disappointed.

Mathews has never been that guy and likely never will be.


Michael Schottey is an NFL Associate Editor for Bleacher Report and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He has professionally covered both the Minnesota Vikings and the Detroit Lions, as well as NFL events like the scouting combine and the Senior Bowl.