The anticipation level for Ryan Mathews' 2012 season was palpable this offseason.
Finally granted an opportunity to take all the important snaps in the San Diego Chargers offense, Mathews appeared ready to take the next step as both an NFL running back and fantasy football option. A jump into the "elite" category of backs wasn't out of the question.
Just one carry into the preseason, however, and that excitement came crashing back down to earth.
Mathews suffered a broken clavicle during the first quarter of the Chargers' 21-13 preseason-opening win Thursday and underwent surgery Friday to repair the injury. Under most circumstances, the recovery period for such a procedure is four to six weeks, according to Michael Gehlken of the San Diego Union-Tribune via Twitter.
Mathews' latest injury begs the question: What kind of fantasy value does the Chargers' oft-injured, bad-luck running back now possess?
Certainly, the value has to come down if there's confidence in the recovery timeline. Four to six weeks puts Mathews in danger of missing the Chargers' regular-season opener against the Oakland Raiders on Sept. 10.
A full six weeks likely means Mathews also misses Week 2 of the regular season.
According to one orthopedic surgeon, Mathews is unlikely to return in just four weeks.
From Dr. Daniel Kharrazi, a Los Angeles surgeon who spoke with Gehlken of the Union-Tribune this weekend:
Frankly, I don't think most people would release him before six weeks. The healing time is four to six weeks. So, especially in a professional athlete, I think you're going to take the extra step to make sure it's 100 percent healed because you don't want it to get hit on, and if it's not properly healed, he can reinjure the shoulder.
However, both Mathews and Chargers coach Norv Turner appear confident that Mathews will be ready for the opener.
"The goal is to get back as fast as I can," Mathews told Scott Bair of the North County Times. "The doctor said it would be between 3-6 weeks, and I think I heal pretty fast. I think I'll be good in time to play against the Raiders."
"Realistically, it's four to six weeks," Turner said, according to the Chargers' official site. "If everything goes exactly the way we'd like, he might be available for the opener."
It appears fairly easy to sift through the three different comments.
While the Chargers remain optimistic that Mathews can return, an independent doctor with no horse in the race thinks six weeks is the appropriate timeline. The Chargers have no need to rush anyone back to start the season, especially a player that has the injury history of Mathews.
The risk of re-injuring the shoulder comes into play, too.
According to Stephania Bell of ESPN, Adrian Peterson broke his clavicle during his junior year at Oklahoma, sat out seven weeks and then returned, only to re-break the same bone. For running backs, the risk of re-injury is high. Per Bell:
Every fall onto the shoulder, direct hit to the shoulder (especially if the player is hit from both sides simultaneously), even a stiff-arm move, will translate force through the collarbone area. For an athlete such as Mathews, who will incur contact through his clavicle (directly or indirectly) on virtually every play in which he carries the ball, the confidence that the bone will remain intact must be high before allowing him to compete.
Before the injury, Mathews had begun creeping up fantasy boards. Some had him as high as the sixth- or seventh-best running back in the draft.
With Mike Tolbert exiting San Diego for Carolina this offseason, Mathews was—and still is—expected to take on a much bigger role in the Chargers offense. Fantasy owners salivated over the opportunity for Mathews to take a good chunk of Tolbert's eight scores and 54 catches from a year ago and tack it onto his already solid numbers from 2012 (1,091 yards rushing, 455 receiving, six touchdowns).
Some went as far as to consider Mathews a borderline first-round pick in 12-team leagues. This injury now knocks him down into the late-second, early-third range, according to fantasy analyst Christopher Harris of ESPN:
For fantasy owners, you can finally wipe away the idea that Ryan Mathews is a first-round draft pick. No more. I actually kind of think this could be a blessing in disguise. Matthews was already too injury-prone to be a first-round pick. He's much better suited to be a late-second, early-third round pick...Mathews is 12th on my running back list, and 25th overall...Tread with caution, but he's still a fantasy starter moving forward.
Mathews is still a talented player with a great opportunity ahead of him in 2012. Fourteen games—assuming he's healthy upon return—is still better from a fantasy perspective than most of the backs in the NFL.
But this latest injury has to drop him down boards, and he's probably better suited to being a guy you take with your second or third pick in a draft. He carries too much risk from an injury standpoint moving forward.