Although my takes on the players in the next series of posts might be useful to fantasy owners, this isn’t a fantasy football article. I’m not projecting stats. I’m writing about talented players whose portfolio of work reveals techniques and behaviors that I think translate well to the NFL game. At the end of the year, you might look at the stats and conclude that the quantity of the production wasn’t eye-catching for each of these emerging talents. However, I believe their work will be impressive enough for opposing teams, fans, and more astute fantasy owners to take future notice.
Unlike Eric Decker and John Beck, Ryan Mathews’ 2011 breakout potential is a no-brainer. If not for a high ankle sprain in Week 2, Chargers head coach Norv Turner foresaw a 250-carry, 40-catch rookie year from the heralded Fresno State prospect. Last year, Mike Tolbert did a fine job splitting the load with Mathews as the lead back. But for those people who believe Tolbert will be a hindrance to Mathews’ production, consider the skills both runners bring to the team.
Tolbert: A bulldozer with a change-up
In addition to doing a pretty mean Dougie, Tolbert is a force when he hits a crease with his pads downhill. Because he has a fullback’s build, it’s easy for opposing defenders to underestimate his agility in space (0:33). However, I wouldn’t even say that Tolbert has average agility for an NFL running back. I think he surprised defenders that he had agility at all.
The RB from Coastal Carolina is a one-cut runner who becomes a bulldozer once he reaches the second level of a defense. His bounce outside against the Chiefs (0:39) is more an example of deceptive acceleration than great lateral agility. With this run and the next, Tolbert demonstrates that he “bends runs” rather than makes hard cuts. While effective, bending a run doesn’t change the defense’s pursuit angle as dramatically as a hard cut. Nor does a run bender lacking top speed create as many game-breaking plays.
Tolbert also lacks the third gear of an elite running back. His catch and run against Cleveland (0:49) is a play that makes Tolbert appear faster than he is. Note the distance that the LB covers after his initial drop to nearly catch the RB at the opposite sideline early in this run.
As I mentioned, Tolbert has good acceleration for a back his size, but against most starting runners in the NFL this LB wouldn’t have come as close as he did to making a play. A valid question about this play is why Tolbert was this wide open in the first place?
The DB that pushes Tolbert out of bounds at the one yard-line does so from a starting point in the middle of the field. He closes the gap to five yards of horizontal distance at the 30 yard-line and runs past a blocker to cut off the RB at the five before delivering the final push. That’s a reasonable amount of ground to make up on a player. Against a runner like Ryan Mathews the DB wouldn’t have gotten this close.
What Tolbert continues to show on film is the initial acceleration to turn the corner. However, you also have to wonder if defensive backs underestimate his speed. This is the case with runs at 0:33 and 0:39 in the highlight package as well as a play versus the Titans at 1:20. The second- and third-level defenders on this play were way out of position.
On all of these plays the Chargers got the opposing defense moving in the wrong direction with ideal blocking at both the line of scrimmage and the second level. The result were big holes that gave Tolbert a strong start.
I love Tolbert’s second and third-effort mentality on this run against the Chiefs (1:41). He does a good job of deflecting hits directed at his core and he also keeps his knees high enough to run through the attempted wraps after the initial contact. He’s a big guy with good feet, good balance, and a desire to punish opponents at the end of runs.
While his strengths are at their best in short yardage, there’s no doubt that when called upon Tolbert can get the job done in the NFL. The concern is that most of Tolbert’s big plays frequently occur when a defense experiences a strong lapse with its gap discipline or coverage. I think players with outside contain can get too eager to help gang tackle up the middle and over pursue. This exposes the edges of the defense because they regarded the big fella is a downhill runner and then discovered he had a sneaky change-up.
Despite a disappointing rookie year, I still thought a dinged-up Ryan Mathews demonstrated a greater variety of tools as a ball carrier that will become fully apparent to the average viewer when he’s completely healthy in 2012.
Mathews: The complete package
While his power is not as punishing as Tolbert, Mathews’ first few runs in this highlight package illustrate a back with good pad level and the strength to move a pile. Mathews also demonstrates lateral agility in the open field against the 49ers safety (0:35) that Tolbert lacks.
Mathews’ game (0:43) also includes a good stiff arm. This is something I haven’t seen from Tolbert, who invites defenders into his body and then aggressively lowers the shoulder into contact as punishment. When a back like Tolbert lowers the pads and helmet in the manner he does, he generally concedes that he’s going to get taken down. Clearly the intent is to inflict enough punishment on opposing defenders so they will be more hesitant to engage Tolbert on subsequent attempts.
In contrast, a runner with a stiff arm like Mathews can extend the current play and still punish the opponent. A good stiff arm is also more effective against defensive penetration (0:47), which can negate most runs from downhill bruisers like Tolbert.
The difference in speed between the two runners is also readily apparent. Don’t pay attention to the rate of steps, focus on how quickly the two players move versus their respective opponents.
Mathews’ reception on a swing pass against the Broncos (0:55) isn’t nearly as productive as Tolbert’s versus the Browns. Tolbert is nearly caught by an LB from across the field within his first 10-15 yards after the catch. However, two defenders with good angles within 5-10 yards of Mathews can’t touch him the due to the rookie’s acceleration and lateral agility.
In fact, Mathews outruns a third defender, the LB who had a good angle in the right flat. There’s another demonstration of speed later in these highlights (against the Cardinals) where Mathews bounces a run to left end and then outruns the containment.
An aspect to Mathews’ game that I think the casual observer misses might be what makes him a borderline elite prospect: the ability to make a hard cut in the hole without losing a lot of speed. You’ll see what I’m talking about when you closely examine his run against the Bengals (1:07).
Watch how the rookie changes direction as he crosses the blue line. The angle of the cut isn’t sharp, but the speed with which the runner changes direction in the hole is something that repeatedly impressed me when I studied him at Fresno State.
You will see the same skill in the hole on the very next run against the Broncos (1:13). The second cut, which the production team froze temporarily to highlight, turns the LB around and gets him outside the hole that he initially targeted on the first cutback. Like Adrian Peterson, Mathews has a knack for changing the axis of defensive pursuit with strong cuts at high speed behind the line of scrimmage or in the crease.
Great runners make these kinds of cuts with consistency. Watch 1:55 of this clip – Gale Sayers’ 6th TD in a game - and you’ll see a similar full-speed cut that Mathews just executed against the Broncos. I can watch this Sayers punt return all day. It’s performance art.
Back to Mathews. Once he clears the LB with the cut, he stiff-arms the defender coming from the outside with his left arm and then switches the ball to that left arm to that sideline arm. Not often do I see a back fluidly execute decisions that involve this kind of vision, agility, power, and ball security in heavy traffic all during the same play. This is the sign of a player who processes information quickly.
The next three runs further illustrate Mathews’ skill with the stiff arm. This is not his only source of power. Balance is another terrific asset in his arsenal. When a defender gets into Mathews’ body, it’s no guarantee he’s bringing this talented runner to the ground. Watch Mathews run out of a Chiefs’ tackler by changing direction and planting the free arm into the turf (2:00). On the next play Mathews bounces off a head-on hit by a Bears linebacker (2:07).
The rest of Mathews skills on display in these highlights are like the instructions of a shampoo bottle: Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
Mathews has the edge in speed, agility, and technique to punish defenders while keeping them away from his body. Tolbert might draw short yardage duty, but Mathews is more versatile. As long as the second-year runner stays healthy, it’s improbable that Tolbert usurps more than 35 percent of the carries in San Diego. Considering that top-producing runners are from teams where other players on the depth chart frequently account for 40-50 percent of the touches, Mathews is in a great situation to break out.