Ryan Matthews vs. Maurice Jones-Drew: Who's the Better Fantasy Pick for 2012?

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Ryan Matthews vs. Maurice Jones-Drew: Who's the Better Fantasy Pick for 2012?
Harry How/Getty Images
Ryan Mathews, San Diego Chargers

After the first three running backs in this year's fantasy football drafts, there are a lot of tough decisions to make. If you take a look at the next seven running backs and where their average draft position is, you'll notice that there is talent, of course, but many question marks.

I'm going to take a look at two running backs who are being drafted close together, but are viewed quite differently, Maurice Jones-Drew and Ryan Mathews.

Let's take a look at where they are being drafted so far this season from The Football Guys ADP Tracker:

Running Back ADP

 

As you can see, overall, Ryan Mathews is ahead of Jones-Drew, but it's close and not unanimous. So when your draft position comes in somewhere between four and nine, what do you do? Well, if you want a running back, (and with the dearth of running backs this season, I do), you might be choosing between MJD and Mathews. Who do you choose?

Last season Maurice Jones-Drew led the NFL in rushing yards and finished as the third-best fantasy running back and even though his knees were a concern going into the season, he played every game and carried the Jaguars on his back.

On the other side of the country, Ryan Mathews finished 11th in rushing yards and seventh in fantasy points for running backs. He missed two games due to injury and split time with Mike Tolbert.

Let's take a look-see at their career numbers so far:

MJD and Ryan Mathews Career Stats

 

It's almost hard to believe that Maurice Jones-Drew is still only 27 years old, while Ryan Mathews is already 25. Both ages should put them at the prime of their careers. But of course the wear and tear on each, over their careers so far, is quite different. Mathews has touched the ball 452 times compared to Jones-Drew's 1,762, with a career-high 386 touches last season.

But you can't have a conversation about injury risk between these two without pointing out that Mathews has missed six of his first 32 games as a pro and has had nagging injuries in many games he has played. And he's missing a "T" in his last name, which is always suspect.

There is no easy way to calculate injury risk. If a player is coming of an MCL tear, you have good reason to be wary, but each season is different. After offseason surgery it looked very likely that Jones-Drew would be an injury risk in 2011 and would even see less carries because of that, but then he saw the ball more than any other running back in the league!

On the other hand, Mathews was also an injury risk, but still managed to finish as the seventh-best fantasy back, even though he wasn't getting goal-line carries.

I'm going to call the injury factor a wash. Jones-Drew has a lot of worn tread on his tires and Mathews has injury history. They both have "risk" attached to them, probably more than most of the running backs who were injured last season. We just don't know.

You can call Mathews soft and you can say MJD has been worked into the ground, but both may never leave a game, and both may have season-ending injuries on the first play of preseason.

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
Maurice Jones-Drew, Jacksonville Jaguars

 

So what about this season? What has changed? What will happen? First off, I'm going to ignore the Maurice Jones-Drew holdout talk. If three weeks from now he's not in camp, then let's worry, but most of the time these things work themselves out.

The first question for Jones-Drew is, will he get as much work as last season? The answer is no. It may not amount to a significant amount less, but Rashad Jennings is back and he will take away some carries. In 2010 he had 100 touches to Jones-Drew's 333. But the real difference in 2010 compared to 2011 is red-zone usage.

 

MJD and Jennings Red Zone Stats

 

As you can see, Jones-Drew benefited from being the only running back to touch the ball in the red zone for the Jaguars in 2011. Inside the red zone in 2010 Jennings had 13 carries for six first downs and three while Jones-Drew had 41 carries for 10 first downs and four touchdowns.

Those are pretty good numbers for Jennings and there's no reason we won't see him back in the red zone again this year, taking away a few opportunities. 

As a side note: Rashad Jennings was put on injured reserve last season for a knee injury, but never required surgery. All indications are that he could have returned in Week 7, but he had already been put on IR. The injury was never fully disclosed, but with no surgery, we know it wasn't a tear. He is the primary backup to Jones-Drew going into the season and all indications are that he is 100 percent.

Grant Halverson/Getty Images
Rashad Jennings, Jacksonville Jaguars


The Jaguars quarterback situation can only improve after a disastrous rookie season for Blaine Gabbert. Jacksonville was dead last in the league in total yards and also had the league's leading rusher. You do the math.

How much will the offense improve? It's hard to say. The addition of Justin Blackmon and Laurent Robinson, along with a year under Gabbert's belt, can't hurt, but there will still be growing pains. I like that Jones-Drew is the offense's engine, but I would also like them to get to the opponent's goal line more often.

Jeff Gross/Getty Images
Mike Tolbert, San Diego Chargers

 

This offseason, Ryan Mathews shed a giant albatross hanging from his neck named Mike Tolbert. For the last two seasons Tolbert has been the Chargers' goal-line and receiving back and it shows in their numbers. Let's take a look at their overall and then red-zone numbers for last season

Mathews and Tolber 2011 Statistics

 

 

Mathews and Tolbert 2011 Red Zone Statistics

 

No, Mathews isn't now going to have 343 rushing attempts and 104 receptions because Tolbert is gone, but say he got half of his touches, he'd still have 282 carries and 77 receptions, but better than that, he'd double his red-zone touches.

Last season he had a paltry 21 touches in the red zone compared to 45 for Tolbert. That's, let me get out my abacus, 66 red-zone touches for Chargers' backs last season. That's a lot of time spent near the goal-line compared to the Jaguars' back who had 53, as the only real weapon on the team.

Last season Jones Drew had 11 touchdowns to Mathews' six, but also had 53 red-zone touches to Mathews 21. Those numbers will be much closer this season with Tolbert gone and Jennings back.

Maurice Jones-Drew also finished last season with 43 receptions, which isn't horrible, but Mathews finished with 50 and Tolbert had 54. That leaves a large group of receptions just hanging out in the football ether for Mathews to claim. And I would rather have Philip Rivers throwing to my fantasy back than Blaine Gabbert. Mathews is poised to be a points-per-reception stud.

If you look to the past and want to bathe yourself in the safety of old numbers, then Jones-Drew is probably your guy, but if you want to look toward the future and stay ahead of the curve, Ryan Mathews is the pick. I will always go for upside when choosing between two similarly ranked players, and Mathews has upside coming out his backside.

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