Soon to be stars: Ryan Mathews

Scouts Inc.'s Matt Williamson looks at AFC West players on the verge of a breakout in 2011.

This wasn’t an easy decision. Antoine Cason came to mind, but he had a bit of a breakout campaign in 2010. Meanwhile, the running back whom San Diego traded up to land in the 2010 draft, Mathews, disappointed in Year 1. I am not excusing his play last season, but I do think that Mathews will rebound in a big way in Year 2.

When they made the draft pick, the Chargers surely saw Mathews as their workhorse runner. He is big, strong and physical. Mathews is built to carry such a load, especially on an offense like San Diego’s, which is so adept throwing the ball -- especially deep downfield. Mathews needs to improve in pass-protection. That certainly isn’t an uncommon problem, though, for a young back, and Mathews is just 24.

Mathews didn’t log the snaps that the Chargers had envisioned. His high ankle sprain lingered, and he had an arm injury, too. Although I think durability is a concern with Mathews, I also think we didn’t see what he is truly capable of. As his injuries lingered, Mike Tolbert stepped up and gained the trust of his teammates and coaches. Tolbert was also better in production than the rookie. Darren Sproles probably will be playing elsewhere next season, but Tolbert will remain in the picture to spell and push Mathews. In the end, with Mathews’ worries about staying healthy, having Tolbert in the picture -- and Jordan Todman, to a much lesser degree -- could be good for the long-term production of Mathews.

Mathews is more talented than Tolbert, who runs hard, but isn’t as dynamic or elusive as Mathews. Mathews has more speed than we really got to see last season. As a rookie, Mathews did finish the season strong with a 26-carry, 120-yard rushing performance, albeit against a poor Denver rush defense. Mathews did finish the season with a 4.3 yards per attempt average, and he did catch 22 passes in his rookie season despite missing significant time. He has soft hands for a big back and showed a nice ability to run routes out of the backfield. I expect his production to rise considerably in 2011.

Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.