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2012 Fantasy outlook: San Diego Chargers

Senior Fantasy Writer
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Philip Rivers might be the face of the Chargers franchise but it's rusher Ryan Mathews who is the Charger of most interest to the Fantasy universe -- a spotlight he's stood in before.

As a rookie in 2010, Mathews was among the trendiest picks in Fantasy. With promises of LaDainian Tomlinson-like numbers, many owners invested heavily in him, some taking him as high as a late first-round pick. He went on to total 823 yards and seven touchdowns while fellow Chargers rusher Mike Tolbert had 951 total yards and a massive 13 touchdowns. Consequently, owners were gun-shy to draft Mathews in 2011 -- his average draft position was roughly 53rd overall -- but he improved on his rookie totals with 1,546 total yards and six scores on 272 touches (Tolbert had 923 total yards and 10 touchdowns).

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This offseason, Tolbert bolted San Diego for Carolina, meaning that the days of him stealing touches and touchdowns away from Mathews are over. Based on the last two seasons, one might deduce that effectively 10 touchdowns are on the table for the taking with Mathews the run-away candidate for them. So it's no surprise once again that Mathews is going to get taken regularly in the first round of Fantasy drafts with wild expectations.

Head coach Norv Turner has done nothing to dispel those expectations, either. He thinks Mathews is "ready to take that next step" which means, in his mind, that "the production goes way up." National writers have wondered about Mathews taking on 400 touches. The Chargers have done little to replace Tolbert, signing big fullback Le'Ron McClain, declining rusher Ronnie Brown and drafting Michigan State's Edwin Baker with a seventh-round pick. They join Curtis Brinkley (142 total yards, one touchdown) as the backups. If the Bolts have a plan to take carries from Mathews, they sure picked a motley crew of backs to pick from to do so.

But the belief, or the hope in the case of Fantasy owners, is that Mathews won't share much and reap the statistical rewards of being an every-down back. Sounds great, but questions about his durability (he's missed six games) and his inability to live up to expectations (he's done that twice in two seasons) temper his potential. Regarding his body holding up, Mathews has reportedly put on 15 pounds of muscle in anticipation of the added workload, a drastic change considering he showed up to camp out of shape last summer. Regarding meeting his expectations, consider this: In the eight career games Mathews has had at least 20 touches, he's had seven with at least 100 total yards and/or a touchdown. That includes going six for six last year. The Chargers went 5-1 in those games.

Guess who's getting the ball. The high draft consideration for Mathews has merit and should pay off for those who choose to take him between fifth and 10th overall.

Fantasy Value Chart
Player Draft Day value Estimated round
Quarterbacks
Philip Rivers 4
Running Backs
Ryan Mathews 1
Curtis Brinkley ND
Ronnie Brown ND
Wide Receivers
Robert Meachem 9
Malcom Floyd 11
Eddie Royal ND
Vincent Brown ND
Tight Ends
Antonio Gates 5
Kickers/Defense
Nate Kaeding 14
Chargers DST ND
ND - not expected to get drafted

Breakout ... Robert Meachem, wide receiver
There's a changing of the guard in San Diego as Vincent Jackson has left the team after getting paid a ton by Tampa Bay in March. To replace him, the Chargers signed Meachem away from the Saints with the premise that he can take over as the deep threat Jackson was for much of seven seasons. Meachem was never a stat machine for the Saints but much of that had to do with sharing the field with a lot of receivers and not seeing a ton of playing time (he was out there 78 pct. of the time according to Pro Football Focus). As a highly-paid acquisition, Norv Turner said he'd like to get at least 45 plays per week out of Meachem, which should give him a chance to put up career highs in receptions and receiving yards and come close to the nine scores he had with the Saints in 2009. Healthy for the first offseason in a few years, Meachem is one to target with a pick starting in Round 9 or 10.

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Sleeper ... Malcom Floyd, wide receiver
Meachem won't catch everything in San Diego, but he'll surely draw some coverage. Tight end Antonio Gates will draw plenty of coverage too. That might leave Floyd in a familiar position: In single coverage awaiting Philip Rivers' passes. Floyd has never been a Fantasy darling partially because he's spent too much time on the sideline inactive (he's missed nine games in the last two seasons), but he ended last season as one, catching four touchdowns in his final five games with 455 yards in those games to push his 2011 total to a personal-best 856 yards. His familiarity with Turner's offense, his likelihood for playing time and his speed make him an intriguing late-round pick. He's also entering a contract year, so if he can play well this season he could take a page out of Vincent Jackson's playbook and land a big contract in the spring.

Keeper-league targets ... Vincent Brown, wide receiver; Ladarius Green, tight end
Brown was a hometown rookie for the Bolts last season, and he played well in a couple of games in early November. He hopes to build off of his first year with a bigger role this year. Brown will battle newcomer Eddie Royal for playing time, a battle that sounds one-sided after Turner called Royal among the best players he's ever coached. But Brown is sure to stick around San Diego for a while and could earn playing time eventually. As for Green, he's joining the Chargers in the same mold Antonio Gates did back in the late 1990s: Tall, lean, fast project pick. He's got the potential of a Dallas Clark or Aaron Hernandez and will take time to develop. Green will be available in rookie drafts and Brown might be available in dynasty and keeper re-drafts. Both are worth mid-to-late picks.

Schedule breakdown

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17
@OAK TEN ATL @KC @NO DEN bye @CLE KC @TB @DEN BAL CIN @PIT CAR @NYJ OAK

And here's the last piece of the puzzle regarding Ryan Mathews, Philip Rivers and the Chargers' Fantasy outlook. The team has to love the first 11 weeks of their schedule: Maybe two teams with stout defenses are in front of them. Starting in Week 12 it gets a little hairy with three straight games against the best teams the AFC North can offer and a Week 16 date in New York (a game where they struggled last season).

Training camp topics

2011 Touches Leaders
Player Touches
Ryan Mathews 222 carries, 50 catches
Mike Tolbert 121 carries, 54 catches
Antonio Gates 64 catches
Vincent Jackson 60 catches, 3 carries
Malcom Floyd 43 catches

Let's just pause on the Mathews hype for a second: Let's say that Norv Turner was full of hot air this offseason and plans on using Mathews as he always has and will give up some reps to another back. Who will be that other back? Training camp will determine whether Curtis Brinkley or Ronnie Brown will step up to be the backup, or if Le'Ron McClain is the next fullback to become a running back in San Diego. If we had to name a "best bet," it would be Brinkley, though for now no handcuff for Mathews is warranted like it was in the past.

The slot receiver role will also need to be watched in camp. Eddie Royal joined the Chargers from the Broncos and has yet to reclaim his magic from his 91-catch, 980-yard, five-touchdown rookie season. Since 2009 Royal has had four touchdowns and 115 catches over three years. It will be a major reclamation project for Turner if he can turn Royal into more than a special-teams returner after three years of mediocrity.

But there are two mainstays in San Diego that Fantasy owners will lean on as weekly must-starters: Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates. Luckily, the outlook for both is good. Rivers is coming off one of his worst seasons, tossing a four-year low 27 touchdowns and a career-high 20 interceptions while throwing a career-high 582 times. Rivers' pass attempts has either stayed even or gone up in every year of his career. If he's passing over 550 times and throwing like we've been accustomed to, we're going to see a big year for him. As for Gates, he's entering training camp healthy for the first time in years. His feet need to stay healthy in order for him to be productive. Some might think Gates could struggle given that Vincent Jackson is gone, but if defenses hound Gates then Rivers will burn them connecting with his other weapons. So Gates should find his moments and still be an asset for Fantasy, even if his seven scores last year broke a seven-year streak with at least eight touchdowns per season.

There will be a kicking competition in San Diego between Nick Novak and Nate Kaeding. Kaeding tore his ACL on the opening kickoff last season (how was that for a harbinger of things to come?) and Novak replaced him effectively, making 27 of 34 attempts, including 4 of 7 from 50-plus yards. If Kaeding's leg is healed and he's an effective kicker he'll probably reclaim his job. But he's on the books for a $2 million salary this season, money the Chargers might need if they get thin at another position. Novak is slated to make less than half of that. Money could be a factor in who kicks for the Chargers, and until that battle is settled Fantasy owners won't touch either guy knowing neither is locked into a job.

If the offense is loaded with stat producers who could help Fantasy owners, the defense is loaded with question marks. The pass rush has been an issue for the Chargers for years. They attempted to address it with Melvin Ingram and he'll help a unit that was led by backup Antwan Barnes last year (11 sacks, roughly one-third of the team's total). If the pass rush can't come down on their division rivals including Peyton Manning, they'll lose a lot of games. The secondary is looking for rebound years from Quentin Jammer and Antoine Cason after personal issues impacted both cornerbacks; if they get their act together they would benefit from any improvement made from the pass rush.

Injury update

Robert Meachem (knee; probable for the start of training camp) ... Nate Kaeding (knee; probable for the start of training camp) ... Jacob Hester (shoulder; probable for the start of training camp) ... Luis Castillo (leg; questionable for the start of training camp).

Stay in touch with the most passionate Fantasy staff in the business by following us via Twitter @CBSFantasyFB . You can also follow Dave at @daverichard and on Facebook .

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