Any chance of an AFC west title for the San Diego Chargers this season will heavily rest on the young shoulders of third-year running back Ryan Mathews. For that reason alone, Mathews will ultimately become San Diego's most important player in 2012.
Since the departure of future Hall of Fame running back LaDainian Tomlinson in 2010, the Chargers' running game has struggled to return to prominence. Instead, San Diego has turned to quarterback Philip Rivers and the passing game to fill the void on offense left by a staggered running attack.
With LT's departure came the arrival of Mathews through the 2010 draft. Coming out of Fresno State, Mathews was looked at as a hard-nosed runner with all the makings of an NFL-ready player. Despite a history of injuries in college, Mathews was drafted by the Chargers with the 12th pick, and it wasn't long before experts were predicting "a resurgence with Mathews as the feature back."
In his first two seasons, Mathews has been forced to split carries with the likes of Darren Sproles and Mike Tolbert. However, his numbers have seemingly improved even with the lack of carries.
In his rookie season, Mathews managed to find the end zone on seven occasions while rushing for 678 yards. He also collected 22 receptions for a total of 145 yards receiving.
The following year, Mathews increased his total rushing yards from 678 to 1,091. Not only that, but Mathews became a factor in the passing game with 50 receptions and 455 receiving yards.
This season, however, Mathews will finally get the training wheels taken off as he leads the Chargers' rushing attack in a true feature back role. Sproles and Tolbert have both moved on to other teams the past two seasons, and San Diego's current running back depth chart is thinner than it's ever been. Probable alternates sitting behind Mathews on the depth chart are former longtime Miami Dolphins running back Ronnie Brown and second-year man Curtis Brinkley.
As recent reports have suggested, Mathews is slated to take on a heavier workload during the 2012 season. Given Mathews' track record of injuries, however, an increased role on offense could make him more susceptible to re-visiting that injury-filled past.
Either way, an increased workload also means a more balanced attack on offense.
Rivers had a bizarre outing in 2011, racking up career highs in interceptions (20) and fumbles (seven). No doubt he'll return to form next season, but a more effective run game would take the pressure off him to keep San Diego in games.
Mathews may not be the next Tomlinson, but his performance next season will play a huge role in deciding the success of this team. The feeling-out process is over after two seasons with the team, and the big stage is finally set for Mathews in what should be his breakout year.