Sunshine, cold beer, backyard barbecues, the beach, swimming, halter tops. Who doesn’t love the summer? This time of year, a sense of happy-go-lucky optimism alters my normal thinking patterns and changes the way I perceive most things, fantasy sports included. During any other season, I’m the Mauricio Wilson of fake football (less the vestigial tail) – quick to dwell on the negative in an otherwise terrific situation. But when there’s a warm breeze blowing, I can’t help but view the fantasy landscape through a pair of rose colored lenses. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing the offseason developments from around the NFL that have me smiling like I just cracked a Land Shark and made myself comfortable in a beach chair.
I’ve been forced to temper my enthusiasm a bit thanks to the calf injury that’s keeping Arian Foster out of OTA’s, but I was glad to hear he decided to spend the off-season training in Houston, free from any distractions, including his famous Twitter account. While I’ll miss his anti-awesome MRI pictures and his verbal sparring with the Iron Shiek, this quote from Foster could only be seen as a positive development for his 2013 fantasy prospects:
“I’ve just been relaxing and working really hard. I think this has probably (been) one of my most intense training offseasons I’ve had since I’ve been in the NFL. I just want to bounce back. I didn’t feel like I had the best season last year,” Foster said, via the team’s website. “I set a lot of personal goals, a lot of things that I do. I just didn’t feel like I was at my best, and it’s gonna change this year.”
Didn’t have the best season last year? Was he referring to his 1,424 rushing yards that were good for 2nd in the AFC, or his 17 total TD’s that led the entire NFL? When a RB who just put those counting stats on the books classifies his season as a disappointment and immerses himself in his work with the goal of “bouncing back”, I see that as an unquestioned sign he belongs near the top of my cheat sheet.
Yet somehow it feels like I’ve read 143 articles in the last two months trying to convince me that Foster is destined to disappoint. The argument against Arian Foster usually centers around his career low 4.1 YPA as proof he’s already in decline, and the 956 regular season carries he’s accumulated over the last 3 years as evidence he’s due to breakdown.
I would tell the folks singing that tune to follow the Fake Football’s resident OG Chet Gresham on Twitter. A few weeks back, Chet sagely pointed out that Foster’s YPA avg. was not helped by his league high 29 carries inside the 5 yard line. While I have to admit much of Foster’s production last season was tied to volume and red zone work, I’m laying most of the blame for his decrease in efficiency on the play of the Texans offensive line (who parted ways with 40% of their starters prior to last season). Elite line play has been a huge part of what made Foster so unstoppable the last two years. Football Outsiders ranked the Houston o-line 4th in run blocking in both 2010 and 2011. Last season they ranked 9th, falling well outside the top tier for the first time in Foster’s tenure as feature back.
The backwards slide was due in large part to RT Derek Newton grading out 76th amongst NFL tackles in run blocking per PFF. With Newton unable to secure the edge, Foster had no room to execute Houston’s trademark outside zone runs. The bad news is that Newton is still listed as the Texans starting right tackle. The good news is that he was learning on the job in his first NFL season, has the requisite size and body type you look for in a RT (6’6”, 318 lbs.), and is by all accounts a good athlete. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that he develops some consistency in year two. If Newton stinks again (or can’t recover from off season knee surgery), the Texans will turn to this year’s 3rd round pick Brennan Williams, a vicious run blocking RT out of North Carolina. Williams may even have a shot to win the job outright in camp. In either event, I think it’s fair to expect improvement from an o-line that is returning all 5 starters, and received an infusion of talent early in the draft.
There’s another key reinforcement the Texans brought in that could have a positive impact on Foster’s rushing numbers. After running behind traditional fullbacks Vonta Leach and Lawrence Vickers in 2010 and 2011 respectively, the Texans used hybrid fullback/tight end James Casey at FB last season (he even lined up at WR a few times). This year Greg Jones steps in as the starter. You’ll recognize Jones as the guy who made a living paving running lanes for MJD in Jacksonville for the better part of his career. The switch back to a proven, traditional fullback should only help Foster in his quest to “bounce back”.
Throw in the fact that defenses must now account for stud rookie WR DeAndre Hopkins, in addition to reliable weapons Andre Johnson and Owen Daniels in the passing game, and I think it’s fair to expect more room to run for Foster in 2013.
Has Arian Foster carried the ball a ton in the last 3 years? Yes. Does history favor running backs that have carried the ball as much as Foster has, particularly those who led the league in carries the previous year? Not even a little bit. But at least we can take some solace in the fact that there is recent precedent for a RB improving his rushing yards and YPA the season after he led the NFL in carries. Clinton Portis accomplished that feat in 2008 at the age of 27, after spending 6 years in the NFL as a workhorse for the Denver Broncos and Washington Redskins. Total carries on his odometer coming into that season: 1,710. Foster will turn 28 when the season starts, has only served 3 years as the Texans bell cow, and has carried the ball 1,010 times in his career.
Foster will eventually breakdown under the heavy workloads the Texans heap upon him (2008 happened to be the last productive year Portis would have), but it does not necessarily have to happen this year. Those pointing to the calf injury as proof that inevitable bumps & bruises are beginning to mount for Foster need to remember that he’s proven extremely durable as a starter, missing only 3 games in 3 years. Foster also had this to say of the calf injury, in case that’s the sole reason you feel the need to drop him in your ranks:
“Yeah, it’s going good man,” Foster told FOXSports.com. “It’s just a small calf strain. News is dry in the offseason, so it made headlines.”
And to those that fear a healthy Ben Tate will take a substantial bite out of Foster’s numbers this season, sneak a peek at Foster’s career per game averages in games that Tate received double digit carries:
21.3 carries, 94.4 rushing yards, 4.41 YPA, 1.14 rushing TD’s, 3.7 receptions, 43.9 receiving yards
Even if you reduce that line to 19 carries, 84 rushing yards, 0.8 TD’s, 2.5 receptions, and 25 receiving yards per game, you’re looking at 1,344 yards, 12.8 TD’s, and 400 receiving yards over 16 games. Who’s saying no to that with a top 3 pick? Bring on Tate, it will only help keep Foster fresh.
In early mocks, I’ve seen Doug Martin and CJ Spiller come off the board ahead of Foster. Where’s the love people? Those guys might have fresher legs and all the talent in the world, but they have very little in the way of a proven track record. Arian Foster has been the most consistently dominant commodity in fantasy football since he burst onto the scene in 2010. He has never let us down before. I’ll endorse Adrian Peterson over Foster simply because Peterson taught us last year not to bet against him. I would take Jamaal Charles over both Peterson and Foster because I believe his talent and opportunity are about to align – but that’s it. Taking anyone else over Foster in redraft leagues is borderline criminal.
And if you need any more evidence that Foster is safe to take at the top of your draft, just think about how much more productive you would be if you got rid of your tweeting device.