Is Arian Foster a legit No. 2 fantasy back?
The Houston Texans are not ashamed to go dumpster diving in their hunt for the best roster. We witnessed this in their wildly successful signing of safety Bernard Pollard in Week 4 last season. Almost immediately, Pollard became both the enforcer and the playmaker they direly needed out of the secondary.
Running back Arian Foster is yet another free-agent gem they unearthed last season who could very well satisfy another glaring need of the team: a consistent running attack. We admittedly don't really know what we have in Foster given that he is a player who went from his couch to the practice squad to NFL starter in a matter of several weeks last fall.
With rookie Ben Tate likely to land on injured reserve and veteran Steve Slaton's litany of injury and fumbling concerns, it appears that Foster has embedded himself in Houston's backfield. It's no mystery that the fantasy market is now hip to this information, as Foster has been shooting up draft boards over the past month. His current average draft position on Mock Draft Central is up 182.2 percent in just the past week. In ESPN live drafts, Foster is currently going in the eighth round as the 78th overall selection and has seen a 27.1 percent leap in his ADP over the past week. The reality in most leagues is that you'll need to draft Foster in the seventh round in order to acquire his services.
Who is this guy?
Foster is a big kid (6-foot-1, 230 pounds) who ended his college career at Tennessee just shy of claiming Travis Henry's career rushing record. He has been favorably compared to fellow former Volunteers star Jamal Lewis in that he's an unabashed bruiser with some speed and agility to boot. Foster's two starts last season were among the best fantasy cameos in all of last season and would have likely generated even more buzz if they weren't in the final weeks of the season, when the number of active fantasy teams dramatically dwindles. In those games against the Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots in Weeks 16 and 17, Foster averaged 121 yards from scrimmage and scored three touchdowns.
In a recent preseason game versus the New Orleans Saints, he toted the ball six times for 28 yards and had a 10-yard touchdown. It's worth noting, however, that Foster also committed an egregious sin for a Houston tailback: He fumbled the ball. An otherwise solid performance marred by that ball on the field had coach Gary Kubiak and the Texans' faithful flashing back to Steve Slaton's seven fumbles in 2009.
Competition for carries
For an idea of Foster's expected share of the work I consulted ESPN.com's AFC South blogger, Paul Kuharsky, who told me that he expects Foster to be in line for 65 percent of the carries in Houston. The rest of the work likely will go Slaton's way. Just how concerned should a Foster investor be with the presence of a supposedly healthy Slaton, just a season removed from a monster rookie campaign that saw him tally more than 1,600 total yards and 10 touchdowns?
Given that I'm into consulting experts, I contacted our resident injury guru, Stephania Bell, for a take on Slaton's recovery from what has been described as "experimental" neck surgery. A look at a photo that Slaton tweeted, captioned "Bionic Man," speaks to the nature of the surgery he endured, as it shows two prominent screws in his vertebrae. Bell said she's confident enough in what she's seen from Slaton's recovery so that at this point it "seems like his [Slaton's] issues in challenging Foster really have to do with who is functioning as the better back," and not his injury limitations. She also noted that while Slaton "can indeed go on to have success and not have another major incident, there is inherently more risk, simply because of what he has been through."
Bell explained that Slaton's neck problem "contributed to his issues with fumbling last year. Although he downplayed any connection initially, once he had the surgery, he admitted that the numbness he had in his right hand made it tough to grip the ball [which I had suspected when the fumbles became such a dominant issue as time went on]. The numbness [and I imagine he had some weakness too] resulted from pressure on one of the nerve roots in the cervical spine, aka the neck."
In Slaton, we have a formerly dynamic feature back who now appears to be best utilized as a versatile third-down element, perhaps similar to Darren Sproles' role with the San Diego Chargers. The combination of his fumbling issues (he put one on the carpet in the team's first preseason game) and his surgically repaired neck seems legitimate enough to have induced the Texans to invest in Ben Tate and groom Foster. Football Outsiders concluded in their research that last season Slaton "was the worst starter in the league by almost any measure." Given these realities, I don't see Slaton as a threat to Foster's fantasy potential for 2010. It could be a worthy move if you can acquire both Foster and Slaton at reasonable prices, but it's not a necessity when investing in Foster.
Foster is, more than anything, competing with the NFL level of play and both enduring the attrition of the season and the intense physical nature of the position. This is an unproven talent that the team has very little staked in from a resource perspective; no draft status or big bonus dough to worry about here. That said, he currently lays claim to a prominent role in what has proved to be a potent offense.
Foster's fantasy future
The Texans' offense seems content to have capable and competent contributions from its backfield, with ball security as the leading priority. This is an offense that has proved it does not need to have an elite running attack in order to move the ball, but it does need a much more effective means to close out games. Recent Houston teams have struggled mightily with controlling leads and Kubiak said after last weekend's preseason loss to the Saints that "our biggest thing is closing games." This says to me that the team needs to show the ability to employ a clock-eating offense in the twilight of games, and thus requires a successful power-running element. Despite having the league's top passing offense and fourth-best overall offense, the Texans ranked 10th in scoring and 25th in red zone scoring efficiency last season. They struggled to advance the ball in goal-to-go situations. This team needs Foster to become its "closer," a role that could lead to some sound statistical returns.
Let's see what the numbers say about Foster's fantasy potential. The 2009 Texans offense ran the ball 45 percent of the time on first downs, 28th in the league, and its overall run/pass ratio stood roughly at 41/59 percent. The Texans attempted 593 passes and averaged 8.1 yards per attempt. Just three teams threw the ball more. Houston ran the ball 425 times, but averaged a paltry 3.5 yards per carry.
Despite the presence of new offensive coordinator Rick Dennison, it seems little, outside of possibly more running, will change in Houston. Dennison worked closely with Kubiak in their years under Mike Shanahan when Dennison was the offensive line guru for the Denver Broncos' vaunted (and sometimes reviled) zone-blocking scheme. Those Broncos teams that these two coaches worked with from '01 to '05 boasted a top-five rushing attack in four of those seasons. The offensive line is likely weaker than last year due to the career-ending injury of guard Chester Pitts, but there is some continuity and depth in place in addition to the comfort of remaining in the same zone-blocking system.
In our draft kit, we currently have Foster projected for 262 carries, 1,070 yards and eight rushing scores to go with a lowly four receptions for 25 yards. His carry total likely will be a tad higher, into the 280 range, if the assumption of 65 percent of the workload plays out. It's the reception and receiving yardage projections that seem quite low given that he proved capable in the short passing game last season and into this preseason. Despite his reputation as a bruiser, it must be noted that he caught 39 balls in his stellar junior campaign for the Vols and had eight receptions for 93 yards in the four games he played last season. Not to mention the fact that the Texans' offense historically leans on its tailback's hands, averaging 9 yards on running back screen passes last season, tops in the league. Slaton remains the team's true receiving threat from the backfield, but let's not dismiss Foster's potential to haul in 30-plus catches given the team's penchant for throwing on early downs. For what it's worth, the ironically titled Football Outsiders KUBIAK projection system has Foster producing similarly from a fantasy perspective to more esteemed, and costly, commodities like Pierre Thomas and LeSean McCoy.
So in the end, is this guy a valid second fantasy back? I'm not completely sold that he is a trusted No. 2, just yet, but it is true a very promising role in the Texans' backfield does seem like his to lose. As it stands in late August, he is among the "2.5" group that I created in my head, similar to commodities like Michael Bush, Thomas Jones, Ahmad Bradshaw and Marion Barber who are being drafted in a fairly bunched ADP range. None of them has a true feature role, per se, but all seem entrenched in their respective offenses enough to bear legit upside with some semblance of a respectable baseline for production.
In most cases you can acquire Foster as your third back, but it's quite possible that he'll be your No. 2.
Jim McCormick is a fantasy football analyst for ESPN.com, as well as a regular contributor to The Washington Post's "The League" and Sirius XM's Fantasy Sports Channel. He'll be speaking alongside Tristan Cockcroft, AJ Mass and Eric Karabell at the 97.5 The Fanatic Fantasy Football Convention in Philadelphia this Saturday.