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East Coast Offense: Why Ryan Mathews is a Top-5 Back

Chris Liss

Chris Liss is RotoWire's Managing Editor and Host of RotoWIre Fantasy Sports Today on Sirius XM radio.

Ryan Mathews is a Top-5 Back

I'll grant that Adrian Peterson, Darren McFadden, Ray Rice and LeSean McCoy are ahead of him for now mainly because they've been doing it for longer. But after Sunday's game, Mathews is fifth in fantasy points in standard leagues (ahead of Peterson but behind Fred Jackson), and in PPR he's fourth. This is despite yielding the bulk of the goal-line work to Mike Tolbert in the season's first two games as well as half the overall carries. That changed in Week 3, with Mathews seeing 21 carries to Tolbert's four and scoring two touchdowns from inside the red zone.

In other words, Mathews' top-5 numbers through three games fall far short of what he might produce going forward now that Tolbert is likely relegated to third-down and change-of-pace work.

Moreover, Mathews' 14 catches rank him 11th and that's among all players, not just running backs where he's tied with Ray Rice for sixth and ahead of McCoy and McFadden. And that's with Tolbert having 20 catches (third), 17 of which he accumulated in the first two games.

That Norv Turner the offensive architect behind the careers of the two greatest fantasy backs in modern history Emmitt Smith and LaDainian Tomlinson is his head coach, and that the team one built to win in the present drafted him at No. 12 overall last year means Mathews should get a sizeable workload so long as he holds up.

Health is not something one can confidently forecast for any back, let alone Mathews who missed time in college and also in his first NFL season. But Mathews is healthy now and looked spry in the fourth quarter of a 21-carry, four-catch game Sunday, so there doesn't seem to be good reason for undue alarm, either.

If I could deal Rashard Mendenhall, Michael Turner or even Chris Johnson for him, I'd do it.

Revisting Wes Welker

I've been a Welker detractor for years because it always seemed to me a receiver either had to be big, fast, or preferably both to matter in fantasy. The big, slow guys like Larry Fitzgerald and Dwayne Bowe were touchdown machines because of the matchup problems they created in the red zone. The small, fast guys like Mike Wallace, DeSean Jackson and Carolina's Steve Smith could get you double-digit scores from deep. And guys who had both Randy Moss, Terrell Owens, Andre Johnson and Calvin Johnson were rare first rounders from the position. But the small, slow, route-runners with good hands like Derrick Mason, Keenan McCardell and Welker those guys were fairly worthless, unless you were in a PPR league.

Through three games, that has emphatically not been the case with Welker who's been arguably the most valuable property in the fantasy game. Not only does Welker have 31 catches a 160-catch pace that does not feel entirely unsustainable but 458 yards, a 14.8 YPC and four touchdowns. Can he remain a top-five WR in non PPR formats?

If you take away his 99-yard TD catch, his YPC goes down to 11.6, which isn't too far from his 2009 average of 11.0. At 11 yards per catch, and 120-odd catches, that's 1320 yards. He's already got four TDs, and while he's too small for fade routes, and won't usually beat defenders on long bombs, Tom Brady likes getting him the ball on short routes inside the 10, and Welker's quick enough in short bursts to dart into the end zone. I'd give him another six or seven scores on plays like that.

Bottom line, I'd consider Welker a 120-catch, 1300-yard, eight-TD receiver (he'll get more because of the four that are in the bank, but all we care about is what'll happen going forward), and that's top-5 in PPR, top-10-12 in standard leagues.

Because the Patriots are so unique, I'm not sure I'd use the Welker exception to the big/fast rule to form the basis of a third category of elite wideout, but if I had to it would be this: A slow, small receiver can have elite value if he's the clear No. 1 target of a Hall-of-Fame quarterback in his prime. That explains why Reggie Wayne was worthwhile the last few years (once he slowed down), and also why he's unlikely to crack the top-25 this year.

Things to Take Away from Week 3

The Chargers are absolute torture to back in Survivor, and I feel very lucky I got through with them. Against good teams, that kind of clock and play-calling mismanagement along with mental errors will usually cost them the game. They need to outplay teams by a significant margin to win.

Tom Brady will threaten Dan Marino's passing yards record and possibly his own TD pass record. The Pats defense will threaten someone's passing yards allowed record, too.

Felix Jones, I'm loathe to admit, looks decisive and explosive against the Redskins. If he can hold up, he'll prove me wrong for mocking those who drafted him. Reggie Bush, I'm confident, will not.

I bet the Niners regret giving Frank Gore $15 million guaranteed about now.

The loss of Kenny Britt ruined Tennessee's season last year, and it probably will this year as well. Maybe they should sign Randy Moss.

Besides being yet another example of how meaningless the NFL preseason is, Torrey Smith's explosion could go a long way toward solidifying the Ravens as a Super Bowl frontrunner. Last year, the team was good, but limited by its ultra-sluggish trio of Derrick Mason, Anquan Boldin and T.J. Houshmandzadeh. Now whether it's Smith or an eventually healthy Lee Evans, the Ravens have a vertical dimension that's going to make them far harder to defend.

Victor Cruz's breakout is a significant development for Eli Manning and the Giants passing game. If Travis Beckum ever lives up to his receiving pedigree, and Mario Manningham comes back healthy from his concussion this week, the Giants will have a lot of balance on offense, especially when Ahmad Bradshaw is in the game. Their secondary also played a lot better with deservedly maligned former first-rounder Aaron Ross making two picks.

While the Vikings might have collapsed in the second half for the third straight game, let's not forget they covered two of three.

The phantom holding call on the Bears during what was possibly the most ingenious kick return plan in NFL history to deny me the backdoor cover was beyond disgraceful.

Things to Watch in Week 4

Can Chris Johnson get going against the Browns?

Arian Foster's likely return against the Steelers

The Jets in Baltimore off a tough loss

The Pats in Oakland after a tough loss

The league's most disadvantaged road team (Atlanta) traveling to the team with the biggest home-field advantage (Seattle).

Beating the Book

Bills -3 at Bengals

The Bills are one of great early-season stories, along with the Lions and Cam Newton, and they're coming off a thrilling come-from-behind win at home against the Pats. That means it's probably a good time to cash them out. The Bengals haven't been doormats early on, and they'll be up for this game at home against the AFC's only undefeated squad. Back Cincy.

Bengals 21 20

We won with the Vikings last week to go 2-1 in this forum, 11-5 in Week 3 and 25-21-2 on the year. We were 10-7 in this forum last season and 40-27 over the four years of the column (we skipped Week 17 in 2007). From 1999-2010 we've gone 1565-1387 against the spread (53%, not including ties).

The full article comes out on Wednesday night.

Surviving Week 4

Last week, I recommended the Steelers, but had used them so I took the Chargers. Both games were torture, but it was better than taking the other two big favorites, the Pats and Eagles, both of which lost.

Let's take a look at this week's slate:

Team Opponent % Picked* Vegas ML** Vegas Odds
PACKERS Broncos 43.20% 650 86.67
BUCCANEERS Colts 20.70% 430 81.13
Saints JAGUARS 13.00% 300 75.00
BEARS Panthers 7.50% 275 73.33
CHARGERS Dolphins 3.90% 300 75.00
EAGLES 49ers 3.60% 335 77.01
Falcons SEAHAWKS 2.80% 200 66.67

Home Team in CAPS
* according to
** average of the two moneylines

Let's take our hypothetical 100 people left and see how this shakes out. If the Packers lose, there are 57 people left, and the 10 units of equity jumps to 17.54. If the Bucs lose, there are 79 people left, and the equity goes to 12.66 units.

The ratio of 17.54 to 12.66 = 1.39. That means the Bucs offer a 39 percent better payout than the Packers.

Now let's look at each team's chance of losing. The Packers are an 86.67/13.33 favorite, while the Bucs are 81.13/18.87, i.e., the Packers have just over a 13 percent chance to lose, while the Bucs' chance is a little under 19 percent. The ratio of 18.87 to 13.33 = 1.42.

In other words, the added risk of taking the Bucs over the Pack is not quite justified by the payout. Of course, if you think your pool will go heavier on the Pack than most, or if you think Vegas' numbers are off, the Bucs are a viable pick this week. But for now, I'm sticking with Green Bay.

The other teams on the list offer a slightly better payout, but I don't think it justifies their increased risk. Of course, I reserve the right to change my mind when the full article comes out Thursday night.

You can follow me on Twitter at @Chris_Liss