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For the past decade, fantasy owners haven't needed to ask "who" with regard to the San Diego rushing attack, just how many -- how many yards, how many touchdowns, how many records will be broken. But LaDainian Tomlinson's time has run out in San Diego, and so the team went shopping for a new back -- someone to rebuild the running game around. What they found at pick No. 12 in April's NFL draft was Fresno State star Ryan Mathews, who spent the last three years of his life making WAC defenders look foolish.
At the NFL Combine in February, Mathews ran a 4.45 in the 40-yard dash and posted one of the best broad jumps of all the running back prospects -- good athleticism for a back measuring 5-foot-11 and 218 pounds.
As if all of that is not enough, Chargers coach Norv Turner gave Mathews a glowing endorsement in May when he told a reporter, "... I would expect Ryan to have 250 carries and 40 catches, something like that." No rookie running back reached 250 carries last season (although Knowshon Moreno was close) and only LeSean McCoy reached 40 catches. If Turner's prediction holds true, Mathews will be the must-have fantasy rookie of 2010.
Dissecting the depth chart: San Diego returns a number of players who carried the ball last season, including Darren Sproles (93 for 343 yards) and fullbacks Mike Tolbert and Jacob Hester. And the team added Marcus Mason, who carried 26 times for Washington over the final six games last season. But this is really Mathews' gig to lose, and with his running back-friendly coach calling the shots, that's not going to happen (Mathews will have to make way for Sproles in certain formations and game situations, as the team still hopes to utilize both backs).
Just the stats: Mathews gained more than 3,400 yards and scored 41 touchdowns during his three seasons in the lineup for the Bulldogs. His sophomore season was cut short, but not before he gained 166 yards and scored twice in an upset win over UCLA. In '09, Mathews gained 1,808 yards and scored 19 touchdowns. After a win in the opener, Fresno State lost three straight against a tough slate of teams, but Mathews was marvelous during the stretch: 107 yards against Wisconsin, 234 yards and three scores against Boise State, and 145 yards against Cincinnati. The only game in which Mathews failed to top 100 yards was in his team's loss to Nevada, in which an injury took him off the field in the second quarter. Had it not, Mathews probably would have the led the country in rushing yards.
Rookie comparison in 2009: Knowshon Moreno
Moreno carried the ball 247 times for Denver last season with mixed results. He was hot in November but struggled through the season's final month, as one would expect of a rookie. Mathews could match not only Moreno's attempt total, but the number of times he reached the end zone (seven rushing, two receiving).
Interesting fact that won't help you: According to one source, Mathews scored a 16 on his Wonderlic exam -- roughly half the score of the year's top-scoring Wonderlic back, Toby Gerhart (30).
What he's worth: In a recent experts draft, Mathews was selected with the 19th pick in a 12-team league -- the 10th running back picked overall. That may be a little too high, but it illustrates the interest fantasy owners have for Tomlinson's heir apparent.
To be fair to the first-year player, he's probably best suited as a No. 2 back, anywhere from No. 15 to 20 among those at his position. He has a ton of ability and a favorable environment, but fantasy owners should never lose sight of the fact that he's a rookie, and rookies rarely provide consistent and satisfactory results over a 16-game schedule.
Mike Beacom is a contributing writer for FootballDiehards.com.