RB Regression: Why You Should Pass on Arian Foster

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Published: May 12, 2013

Running Back RegressionLet’s face it, there are a lot of reasons to root for Arian Foster. Since going undrafted out of Tennessee in the 2009 NFL Draft, Foster has managed to take advantage of opportunities to become one of the top players in all of football. He’s also anything but conventional. Foster has embraced social media to interact with his fans, made numerous private and unsolicited charitable contributions and has adopted an “outside the box” approach to thinking on social, economic and political issues.

From the tail end of his rookie season, when finally given a chance, Foster has been a star in Houston’s zone-blocking scheme and a fantasy football revelation. He’s finished as a top four fantasy back in each of his three seasons as a starter and has twice led the NFL in touchdowns. On and off the field, he’s a stud and everyone seems to love him. Well, maybe not the Iron Shiek, but fantasy football fans sure do.

Hard to believe, but coming off of a 1424 yard rushing season with an NFL-high 17 touchdowns, Foster sees his 2012 season as a “disappointment” and has went into self-imposed twitter exile to increase his offseason focus and intensity. He says he plans on working out harder than he ever has and to enter the 2013 NFL season in the best shape of his life and ready to take it to “another level.”

As we get ready to kick off another NFL and fantasy season, Arian Foster is at or near the top of every fan’s wish list. Deservedly so. Before we get too excited about locking up a player in our upcoming drafts who has been pure fantasy royalty, there are some alarming numbers that indicate that there may be a sudden decline coming.

Running Back Regression

Arian Foster has finished as the first, fourth and third ranked overall fantasy scorer in each of his three seasons as a starter in Houston. In that time, he’s averaged over 1900 yards from scrimmage and just under 16 touchdowns a year. Those are certifiable fantasy stud statistics he’s producing. Foster is also just 26 years old and is about to enter the prime of his career. But digging a little deeper shows us there are certainly some signs that the heavy workload that Foster has taken over the years is starting to take a toll.

 

Year Games Attempts YPR Receptions Yards Total Yards
2010 16 327 4.9 66 604 2220
2011 13 278 4.4 53 617 1841
2012 16 351 4.1 40 217 1641

 

As the rushing attempts-per-game have increased, the production has slipped. This may be a combination of several things, but undoubtedly opposing defenses started to adjust to the Texans’ scheme and were better prepared to stop Foster. While it’s not uncommon to see a stud running back’s yards-per-carry numbers slowly decline, that usually takes place towards the end of a runner’s career, not at the start.

The most notable decline has been Foster’s reduced role in the passing game. While he did managed to log a career-high 617 receiving yards in 2011, he did so with 13 less receptions than he had during his first year as the full -ime starter. By the 2012 season, there was a further drop to only 40 catches, which only ranked 13th among running backs.

Not surprisingly, Foster has finished amongst the top three in touches in each of the past three seasons. In 2010 and 2012, he led the NFL with 390+ carries and catches. In 2011, Foster missed three games but still managed to finish third in the league with 331 touches. Looking closer at 2011, Foster actually led the league with 25.5 touches-per-contest. If you add those averaged into a 16 game season, Arian Foster was on pace for an alarmingly-high 407 touches.

So essentially, Arian Foster has led the league in usage over the past three seasons. That’s a lot of wear-and-tear and a ton of punishment for a body to absorb throughout a brutal NFL season. Vegan diet or not, it’s an awful lot to ask a young man to continue to shine, while taking that much prolonged punishment.

A Troubling History

Overuse of running backs is nothing new. In fact, it’s been a part of the game for a long time. But even as NFL offenses become more pass oriented and rely less and less upon bell-cow, three-down running backs, there continues to be major declines in production for running backs that lead the league in carries.

There seems to be a couple of anomalies when it comes to predicting how and when a running back will suffer from a sudden decrease in effectiveness. The first is often referred to as the “Curse of 370.” The basic idea is that a running back coming off of a season in which he accumulated 370 or more carries is almost always due for a big let down.

As ESPN’s Tristan Cockcroft point out in his article, 25 of the 28 times that a back has carried that many times he’s followed up the season with a minimum of a 20% drop-off in production. 71% of the time, the overworked running back has gone on to miss at least one game and only one, LaDainain Tomlinson in 2003, managed to match or surpass his production. So in summary, of the 28 instances in NFL history that a running back has piled up 370 or more hand-offs, 96% of the time his numbers have dropped off he next year.

The other telling statistic is what has happened to running backs that have led the league in carries. Going back over the past 25 seasons, only three running backs, Emmitt Smith (twice), Edgerrin James and Clinton Portis have managed to rush for more yards the season after leading the NFL in carries. Assuming for standard fantasy scoring (FFP), this is the break-down of the past decade’s worth of fantasy stats for the NFL rushing leaders.

 

Year Player Rushes Yards YPC TD FFP
2002 Ricky Williams 383 1853 4.8 17 324
2003 Jamal Lewis 387 2066 5.3 14 311
2004 Curtis Martin 371 1697 4.6 14 278
2005 Shaun Alexander 370 1880 5.1 28 364
2006 Larry Johnson 416 1789 4.3 19 334
2007 Clinton Portis 325 1262 3.9 11 238
2008 Michael Turner 363 1760 4.5 17 276
2009 Chris Johnson 358 2006 5.6 16 347
2010 Michael Turner 334 1371 4.1 12 218
2011 Maurice Jones-Drew 343 1606 4.7 11 264

 

Now let’s look at the follow-up season for each of these running backs and compare how much their fantasy production increased or decreased.

 

Year Player Rushes Yards YPC TD FFP % change Notes
2003 Ricky Williams 393 1372 3.5 10 232 28.4
2004 Jamal Lewis 235 1006 4.3 7 154 50.5 Missed 4 games
2005 Curtin Martin 220 735 3.3 5 115 58.6 retired after this season
2006 Shaun Alexander 252 896 3.6 7 136 62.6 Missed 6 games
2007 Larry Johnson 158 559 3.5 4 99 70.4 Missed 8 games
2008 Clinton Portis 342 1487 4.3 9 225 5.5
2009 Michael Turner 178 871 4.9 10 151 45.3 Missed 5 games
2010 Chris Johnson 316 1364 4.3 11 233 32.9
2011 Michael Turner 301 1340 4.5 11 217 0.5
2012 Maurice Jones-Drew 86 414 4.8 2 62 76.5 Missed 10 games

 

As you can see, in every instance for the past decade, there has been a decline in fantasy production for each running back that led the league in carries. In half of those seasons, the runner missed significant time due to injuries. Only one, Clinton Portis, increased his rushing yards and yards-per-carry, but took more carries to do so, while ultimately being a slightly less productive fantasy player due to a drop in touchdowns.

What we can learn from these alarming numbers is just how much of a toll on the body that being a productive NFL running back takes. These guys are all gifted athletes with tremendous size, skills and ability, but the physical punishment they take throughout the rigors or a 16-game NFL season is just too much to endure for an extended amount of time.

Reduced Role for 2013

Arian Foster Fantasy Football 2013Gary Kubiak is no fool. He’s well aware of Arian Foster’s importance to the Houston Texans offense. With that said, Kubiak also must understand the ramifications of continuing to rely so heavily upon his team’s most important player. There’s a strong possibility  that Kubiak has every intention of protecting his greatest asset by utilizing Foster in a slightly reduced role.

In addition to the heavy usage, Foster has battled minor hamstring and knee injuries and briefly missed time last season due to an irregular heartbeat. While not out of the ordinary to be limited due to nagging pains, these minor issues tend to become more prevalent as a running back’s career carries pile up. It would seem wise for Kubiak to relieve some of these concerns by getting other running backs more involved in the offense, like Ben Tate.

Ben Tate had his own injury problems last year and that helped explain why Arian Foster was forced to stay on the field so much. Tate missed five games and was limited in several others with a series of nicks and pains. Back in 2011, Tate was huge for Houston, rushing for 942 yards and four touchdowns while splitting time with Foster and filling in full-time when Foster missed those three games.

In an interview with CBSSports.com, Gary Kubiak said that Tate was healthy and that he’s expecting the third-year player out of Auburn to have a bigger role in Houston’s offense. Tate is also entering a contract year and will want to show potential future employers what he can do when given a chance.

In addition to Ben Tate, the Texans are also very excited about some of the undrafted free agent running backs that are currently working out with the club. Pitt’s Ray Graham was a two-time first team All-Big East running back who accumulated 11 100-yard games in his collegiate career. Arkansas’s Dennis Johnson is a good fit in a zone-scheme and a plus kick returner. George Winn of Cincinnati comes off of a 1334, 13 touchdown senior season. Also signed was Cierre Wood, a 5’11″ 215 pound runner from Notre Dame.

It’s a near certainty that at least one of these rookie runners will make the club and contribute in a limited role this season. Gary Kubiak has a history of utilizing three running backs. Last season Justin Forsett rushed for 374 yards as the Texans’ RB3, so there’s a good chance that one of these undrafted rookies will be seeing a handful of plays per week in 2013.

2013 Expectations

The point of this isn’t to scare you off of drafting Arian Foster in 2013, but to make you aware that it might be safer to lower expectations and encourage fantasy fanatics that if there is any doubts in their minds at all, to weigh all options before settling for Foster because the rankings you downloaded said that’s what you should do.

If you’re feeling unsure, but also love Aaron Rodgers, Doug Martin or Calvin Johnson, don’t hesitate to consider them carefully near the top of your draft or auction. You’re the one that will live with your fantasy squad over the next four plus months, so make sure that you’re assembling a squad that you’re happy, secure and confident with.

Even with all of these concerns, Arian Foster is a lock to be a top five pick in nearly every fantasy football league in 2013. Early ADP numbers have him a solid number two pick, right behind Adrian Peterson, and even with all the red flags, that’s still about the right range for a talent like Foster to be selected.

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