NFL: Take Note, Ryan Mathews Finally Ready to Join the NFL Elite

Christopher Hansen@ChrisHansenNFLNFL AnalystJuly 5, 2012

SAN DIEGO, CA - DECEMBER 18:  Running back Ryan Mathews #24 of the San Diego Chargers carries the ball in the third quarter against the Baltimore Ravens at Qualcomm Stadium on December 18, 2011 in San Diego, California. The Chargers defeated the Ravens 34-14.  (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Injuries played a role in Ryan Mathews rookie year. He played in 12 games—with nine starts—and didn't immediately produce the way the Chargers had hoped when they traded up to draft him 12th overall two years ago.

Mathews managed to stay relatively healthy in 2011, and had a more productive season than many realize. He showed the team enough to make him the workhorse in 2012 by letting Mike Tolbert leave in free agency.

It appears Mathews is physically and mentally finally ready to become an elite NFL running back.

Norv Turner and Mathews' teammates have been singing him praises this offseason and he's reportedly in great shape. That's in sharp contrast to last offseason, when he failed his conditioning test after the lockout.

The Chargers don't have many legitimate challengers for touches on the roster and Mathews was already a very effective running back. Opportunities with ability usually means big production.

Mathews ranked fifth in yards from scrimmage among running backs in 2011 behind Ray Rice, Maurice Jones-Drew, Arian Foster and LeSean McCoy. It's those pesky touchdowns that have eluded Mathews, as he found the end zone just six times in 2011.

Scoring opportunities shouldn't be a problem for Mathews in 2012 because he is going to get the opportunity to replace those that previously went to Tolbert and Vincent Jackson. Tolbert and Jackson departed in free agency, but combined for 19 of the 43 Chargers touchdowns in 2011.

Tolbert not only took scoring opportunities away from Mathews, but also receiving opportunities in the two-minute drill and obvious passing situations. Tolbert had 54 catches for 433 yards in the passing game, and most of those opportunities will now be given to Mathews.

As long as Mathews stays healthy and avoids a major turnover problem, he'll become an elite back in 2012.