Posted: Tuesday August 14, 2012 1:44PM ; Updated: Tuesday August 14, 2012 1:44PM
Eric Mack
Eric Mack>INSIDE FANTASY FOOTBALL

Mathews falling, McFadden rising and more preseason evaluations

Story Highlights

Ryan Mathews' injury makes him a late second-round choice in fantasy at best

Peyton Manning looked sharp and healthy in his first game for the Broncos

More observations: Darren McFadden explodes, trouble for Larry Fitzgerald, more

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Peyton Manning
Peyton Manning offered a glimpse of the accuracy that made him a fantasy star in his preseason debut for the Broncos.
Matthew Emmons-US PRESSWIRE

Ryan Mathews -- one snap. Snap. Trent Richardson -- no snaps. Knife (even it was just a "routine" 'scope). That is why they play the games.

The NFL's preseason hardly gets started and two potential top-five fantasy picks have to slide significantly down the draft board. Mathews broke his clavicle on his first carry against the Packers, while Richardson's winter knee surgery apparently didn't make him all brand new.

It always happens at the running back position and by now most should expect the worst when dealing with Mathews and Richardson in fantasy, no matter their potential. You just cannot pick these guys in Round 1 now.

They have shown nothing but disappointment, and Round 1 is no time to be taking a risk. It's better going with a rock-solid No. 1 overall receiver in Calvin Johnson, or the money-in-the-bank that seems to be the elite quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Drew Brees.

This is your weekly fantasy review and we start with the top five game-changers:

Game changers

1. RB Ryan Mathews (broken shoulder), Chargers

How far Mathews moves down draft boards is contingent on how long he will be out. Mathews was initially ruled to be out three-to-six weeks; a broken bone needs at least four weeks to heal. The Sept. 10 opener is not out of the question, but coach Norv Turner said his third-year back will need a fairly "fortunate" recovery to make it back by then.

''I think I heal pretty fast, so I think I'll be good in time to play against the Raiders,'' Mathews said.

''You work hard and then something like that happens, but I figure that I'm getting them all out of the way now, and then I'll have the whole season, a long season, to look forward to.''

Mathews can still combine for 1,400 yards and 10 touchdowns, even if he misses Week 1 and 2. So this could be a blessing in disguise for fantasy owners hoping to pick up some value later on a top-five back.

''It's just something that happens,'' Mathews said. ''You've just got to walk away from it, kind of laugh at it and get better.''

No one else is laughing, particularly when you consider Mathews' already checkered injury history while playing in this league. He has missed games in each of the past two seasons and almost certainly is going to miss some in 2012. Mathews should not be picked in Round 1 and maybe not even Round 2 now. Yours truly selected Mathews with the 24th overall pick (the last pick of the second round) Monday in a Twitter Mock draft.

Don't pick him earlier than that, even if you think he will defy the odds and return for Week 1.

2. RB Trent Richardson (another knee surgery), Browns

After the OTAs this June, Richardson was going as high as fifth overall in MockDraftCentral.com drafts. He was going to be an every-down workhorse heavily involved in a short passing game with fellow rookie Brandon Weeden under center.

Well, Richardson's knee surgery that kept him out of the Scouting Combine before going No. 3 overall required yet another look and cleaning before he even was hit by the opposition in live action.

"Trent Richardson underwent a successful routine arthroscopic procedure [Thursday] on his left knee," Cleveland head coach Pat Shurmur said. "We anticipate that Trent will make a speedy recovery, and we are hopeful that he will be ready for our Week 1 game against Philadelphia."

Boy, that sounds eerily similar to Mathews above. The problem with Richardson is he is even more of an uncertainty than Mathews. At least Mathews is coming off a productive season. At least Mathews has a solid veteran quarterback to operate the offense and keep the pressure off.

Richardson just might be like former college teammate Mark Ingram was a year ago, headed for an injury-plagued year. Richardson's knee clearly isn't 100 percent. And what might happen when he starts getting hit in the NFL, which won't happen in the preseason now?

Richardson is no longer a Round 1 pick, and you're probably better off taking some of the veteran backs returning from injury over him in Round 2, like Darren McFadden, Jamaal Charles, Matt Forte and Fred Jackson. At least you have a decent idea what you're getting from those guys.

3. QB Peyton Manning, Broncos

Manning's return from multiple neck surgeries and a lost 2011 last Thursday didn't produce eye-popping numbers, but it was still an impressive debut. To this writer in the house, Manning sure looked like the same, old Manning.

"There's always a little bit of unknown," Manning said afterward. "There's obviously a lot of change. There's a new team and new players. ...

"[I] felt we had a little rhythm there on offense. Things we can build on. Obviously, some things we need to improve on, for sure. Overall, I thought it was a decent start."

Manning made a variety of throws, including checking down to Eric Decker as a fifth option on a throw to the sidelines. He also gashed the defense with pristine protection for a first down with a 19-yard pass to Decker on a third-and-17.

"He was remarkable," head coach John Fox said. "He came back -- he's worked very hard. ...

"For a guy who hadn't played last season and had some medical issues, I think he has done an outstanding job, which is what you would expect of him."

Decker looks like he could be his go-to man, and not only because Manning failed to complete a pass to Demaryius Thomas that counted (one was nullified by a holding penalty and the other fell incomplete). In the postgame news conference, Manning talked about hanging out in his training camp dorm at night, watching tape with a number of his receivers. He mentioned Decker and Jacob Tamme specifically. He even mentioned journeyman Brandon Stokley. He conspicuously didn't mention Thomas as one that attends those late-night pow-wows. Interesting.

"It didn't look like he missed a beat, being out all of last year," Decker said. "It's just exciting."

One preseason Game 1 drive isn't enough to dramatically alter anyone's draft position on Manning, but he at least looks like a justifiable fantasy starter among the top 12 quarterbacks to target on draft day.

4. WR Chad Johnson (released), free agent/WR Terrell Owens, Seahawks

The receiver formerly known as Ochocinco is officially toast. Not that anyone was targeting him in drafts anyway, but Johnson was a projected starter for the Dolphins. After his domestic violence arrest and subsequent release, Johnson's name on low on WR cheatsheets can conveniently replaced by the return of Owens, who signed with the Seahawks last week.

Johnson dropped the only pass thrown his way Friday, but his arrest was his real mistake.

Owens, meanwhile, drew early rave reviews from QB Matt Flynn:

"He's very smooth," Flynn said. "He's obviously a physical specimen. Big guy, big hands, big strong hands. And he got out there the first day and ran some some routes that aren't easy to just get out there and run your first day and haven't run them in a while. Ran them smoothly. I could read him out of his break, so it was good."

Owens might be able to be picked as a reserve receiver, provided he makes the Seahawks roster later in camp.

5. QB Andrew Luck, Colts

No one will dare to say it yet, but as Luck would have it, the No. 1 overall pick of April's draft probably should be picked over Robert Griffin III. Luck's debut was nothing short of awe-inspiring. Griffin's debut was merely auspicious.

"Let's not get too excited about anything,'' Luck said afterward, "because nobody goes back and looks at the preseason record for anything."

Sure, but he looked like he is going to be a tough hombre in a lot of wide-open games like Cam Newton was in his record-setting rookie year for a quarterback.

After his first short pass registered for a 63-yard touchdown to Donald Brown, Luck finished 10-for-16 for 188 yards with two TDs passes and a quarterback rating of 142.6. Three of the incompletions were drops, two were throwaways, and only one pass, the deep out that rookie T.Y. Hilton barely caught on the sideline, came close to being picked off.

Griffin is going to be picked as a fantasy starter in many, if not all, leagues. He shouldn't, merely because many are expecting him to be the next Newton. Luck is still the better quarterback and the bet here is he will be the better fantasy backup QB of the two.

The good: Darren McFadden

Whoa, did McFadden look spry. With the loss of Mathews and Richardson as Round 1 options, McFadden moves up. He might even be a top-five option. McFadden ran twice Monday night for 20 yards and took a pass for 18.

"He was able to make some explosive gains," Raiders coach Dennis Allen said. "That's what we anticipate out of him. He's an explosive playmaker. We have to find ways to get him the ball and give him an opportunity to be explosive for us."

Don't expect 16 games of production, but the games you do get promise to be productive. In Year 5, McFadden might finally be ready to be a fantasy linchpin.

The bad: James Starks

Starks' bad preseason has led the Packers to sign veteran workhorse Cedric Benson. The former Bengal likely will take the starting job and move up into the top 30 backs to target on draft day. Starks has to drop precipitously. He will be a backup, and not a promising one, now.

"I definitely have a goal to still rush for 1,000 [yards]," Benson told the Green Bay Press-Gazette. "I understand it's not a run-first team and the run is not real heavy here, but there's times where a back gets the ball 25 times. And I'm sure if things are rolling, the run game is set to a standard that we're hoping to achieve, it could be way more carries than that."

Benson had a long wait on the free-agent market, but he really landed in a nifty spot. The Packers figure to have a lot of big leads to protect. Benson is right. A decent back can get a lot of carries, even for this pass-heavy team.

 
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