Mathews could emerge as one of fantasy's biggest sleepers

Can Ryan Mathews make an impact after a disappointing rookie year?

I'm usually pretty wary about rookies in fantasy football. No matter how good a guy looks in college, he's still playing against other college kids. It's a huge step up to the NFL, and there's usually a veteran in place who wants to hang on to his job. But I admit it: I got caught up in the Ryan Mathews hype last year. Bought into it hook, line, and sinker.

Mathews was entering a seemingly ideal situation in San Diego, which could make full use of his ability to run and catch passes. The veteran (LaDainian Tomlinson) was gone, the head coach (Norv Turner) had a long history of turning running backs into fantasy stars, and the quarterback (Philip Rivers) was plenty good enough to keep defenses from stacking against the run.

What I didn't count on was the dreaded high ankle sprain Mathews suffered against the Jaguars in Week 2. On the list of phrases fantasy owners don't want to hear, "high ankle sprain" ranks right alongside, "Here's a letter from the IRS" or, "Your ex-wife's lawyer is on the phone."

The ankle bothered Mathews most of the rest of the year, and he soon gave way in the starting lineup to Mike Tolbert. Then, with Tolbert out of the season finale, Mathews showed his potential. He ran for 120 yards and 3 touchdowns as a workhorse back in a victory over Denver. So now this year, I'm ready to take the bait again.

And while Turner may have come around a bit on having two backs ("I've never been that guy, but this game has become so physical," he said last season), he's not exactly to the point of being a full-time committee guy. Either Mathews or Tolbert is going to get the bulk of the work. Mathews' explosiveness gets him the nod. Remember, too, that the Chargers paid a steep price for Mathews-they jumped 16 spots in the draft last year to get him.

Bottom Line:Ryan Mathews will rebound from his subpar rookie season to be an impact player in 2011. He could be one of the steals of your draft.

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