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It's not a surprise that most people missed it. Everyone was so focused on Arian Foster, last year's consensus No. 2 overall pick, that it was easy to overlook the production totals that Ben Tate amassed. If you are considering investing a very early pick on Foster, you should really be aware of the following information:
Since 2002, only one running back (Jamaal Charles, 2010) broke a higher percentage of his rushing attempts for 10 yards or more than Tate did last season. While the run blocking for the Houston Texans may play a key in the success of a running back in this metric, Foster managed 10 or more yards on only 11.5 percent of his carries. Ben Tate did so on 19.4 percent of his attempts. To give you an idea of why this is significant, let's look at the 12 games in which Foster and Tate played together.
During one of those 12 games, Tate left early due to an injury (Oct. 2 versus the Pittsburgh Steelers). When you compare their performance over the remaining 11 games, you'll find that despite having nearly twice as many carries in these games, Foster totaled only 29 rushes of 10 or more yards. During these same games, Tate racked up 23. When you consider the disparity in their total number of attempts during those games, for Foster to have been as productive as Tate in this metric, he would have needed to achieve an additional 17 of these types of runs. Looking at this statistic, it's not completely without merit to wonder if Tate is the more explosive of the two backs.
Normally when you see backs that break many long runs, you would expect them to have a greater tendency to be stopped behind the line of scrimmage or for no gain more frequently than those who are plodders. This is not the case for Tate. During those same games, Foster was stuffed 23 times to Tate's 10. Considering the difference in number of rushing attempts, these numbers are in line with achieving a very similar percentage.
|All four of Ben Tate's 100-yard rushing games last season came when he didn't start.|
The next area to analyze is how productive each running back is inside the opponent's 10-yard line, as this is obviously the most attractive area for running backs to be getting the ball since there is a greater chance for quick accumulation of fantasy points. While most will focus on touchdown percentage in this area, I will highlight first-down percentage, as that encapsulates not only crossing the goal line, but also securing a new set of downs for the player's team. Foster was given 27 attempts in this range last season and he converted 11 times, eight of which were touchdowns, for a first-down rate of 40.7 percent. Tate was given just eight such attempts; however, he converted five of them (including two touchdowns) for a 62.5 percent success rate.
As we look to the 2012 season, we need to project what we expect to change for the Houston Texans to better predict player performance. One might expect that the return of Matt Schaub will have a negative effect on the running game, as Schaub is a more prolific passer than T.J. Yates or Matt Leinart. This ignores the fact that in games in which Schaub was the starter in 2011, the Texans threw the ball 29.2 times per game. In those started by the backups, the Texans threw the ball 29.1 times per game. Expecting any measurable difference in rushing attempts based on who the quarterback is would be foolhardy at best.
Therefore, the only real difference we should be looking to project is how the split of carries will be handled for Foster and Tate. In the similar 11 games mentioned before, the split was 2-to-1 in favor of Foster. Obviously, if things stay the same, Foster should be the first overall selection in fantasy this year. However, I don't expect that split to stay the same.
For the first time, Tate will have a full offseason to prepare for the upcoming campaign (his first was cut short by injury, his second by the lockout). Additionally, the Texans' coaching staff now has a significant amount of NFL game film to assess Tate's overall impact. In my view, these two factors combined with how well Tate performed -- arguably better than Foster in the previously mentioned key areas -- will mean an increased role for Tate. While it's nothing more than an educated guess, I would project at least 40 percent of the 2012 rushing attempts to go to Tate this season, and as many as 50 percent. That would represent a 10-20 percent loss in fantasy points from rushing for Foster, which means he would lose 18-36 points based on last year's production.
Thinking of Foster as a safe pick this season could be disastrous. Ray Rice, LeSean McCoy and Maurice Jones-Drew are safer picks with similar upside. Tate's presence in the Texans' backfield is enough for me to move Foster down to the fourth running back. I suggest you do the same.