Ryan Mathews, Running back
LOOKING FOR a rookie to break out the big numbers this year? Mathews might be the man. So smitten were the Chargers with Mathews's big-play potential that they traded their first-, second- and fourth-round draft picks, plus linebacker Tim Dobbins, to Miami to move up 16 spots and select Mathews 12th overall. As a junior at Fresno State last year he ran for 1,808 yards, averaged 6.6 yards a carry and scored 19 touchdowns. He has the size (6 feet, 218 pounds) to run through tacklers and the burst to slip through holes before they close. But physical skills aren't the only reason Mathews could put up eye-popping stats.
Chargers coach Norv Turner was irked in recent years by LaDainian Tomlinson's claim that his drop in production was a result of a change in Turner's strategy, away from the run and toward the passing game. In 2006, under former coach Marty Schottenheimer, Tomlinson ran for a league-high 1,815 yards and 28 touchdowns. But his numbers bottomed out at a career-low 730 yards in 2009, and the Chargers let him go after nine seasons.
Turner envisions Mathews carrying at least 300 times in his first year—a figure Tomlinson didn't reach in either of the last two seasons. The former Bulldog had 17 runs of 20 or more yards last season, and Turner, who is sensitive to criticism he believes is unwarranted, may try to make the point that the running game's struggles were about Tomlinson's declining skills more than they were about his play-calling, the offensive line or some other factor. "Maybe subconsciously there is a desire to do that," Turner says. "[But] I hate to get to where you personalize something."
Translation: It's personal.