2011 NFL Preview: Ryan Mathews' Time to Shine Is Now for the San Diego Chargers

Zack VanceContributor IIJuly 18, 2011

SAN DIEGO, CA - DECEMBER 16:  Running back Ryan Mathews #24 of the San Diego Chargers rushes with the ball against the San Francisco 49ers at Qualcomm Stadium on December 16, 2010 in San Diego, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Harry How/Getty Images

Ryan Mathews had big shoes to fill after LaDanian Tomlinson spoiled the San Diego Chargers fans for years. But after last season's sub-par performance plagued with injury, many people are starting to question A.J. Smith's decision to draft Mathews.

Mathews enters this season with less hype than in the last, as well as a very long offseason which should bring him to 100 percent.

The stage is set. He has to prove this season he has what it takes to release some of the pressure off Philip Rivers and carry a load of his own. Mathews should expect to see the ball in his hands quite a bit this season, giving him an opportunity to prove himself since it's still questionable whether Darren Sproles will return.

The San Diego Union-Tribune's Kevin Acee implies that the Chargers still have "several concerns" about Ryan Mathews after a disappointing rookie season.

"It's nothing that won't be forgotten with a breakout season. Mathews' talent isn't in question, but NFL head coaches grow frustrated when their starters aren't available. Mathews spent the majority of the 2010 season in the trainers room with a high-ankle sprain (in addition to a minor elbow injury) before undergoing wrist surgery in January."

Even if Mathews returns this upcoming season at 100 percent, he will be sharing some carries with big-man Mike Tolbert and sixth-round draft pick Jordan Todman out of UConn, which should help him ease into his role as a first-down back.

Either way, Mathews will have to prove he can play better than he did last season, when he broke 100 yards rushing in only one of his 14 starts and fumbled the football five times.

If Ryan Mathews improves his performance on the field and Philip Rivers remains as dominant as last season, look out for the San Diego Chargers to regain the top spot in the AFC West.