Look, we need to get some things out of the way here. I don’t necessarily believe that Arian Foster isn’t worth a first-round pick. I have the number 8 pick in my draft, and if Foster’s still sitting there, I would have to think long and hard about passing on him. He’s been one of the best two backs in football over the last three years, he’s on a good team with an excellent offensive line, and here at numberFire, we have him projected to put up excellent numbers if he stays healthy.
But that "if", though. Even the best numbers guys can’t predict injuries. (Or in Foster's case, future injury complications.) We work with Excel sheets, not crystal balls. And even if I don’t believe, deep down in my Grinch heart, that Arian Foster isn’t worth a first round pick, there is still a case to be made, based on a specific, ultra-conservative strategy. As any good defense attorney knows, sometimes you make a case even if your heart isn’t in it. Just know that this case is more about a certain type of draft strategy than it is about Foster’s specific talents.
The People v. Arian Foster
Foster has not gotten a whole lot of positive attention recently. His coach Gary Kubiak implied in a very cryptically worded statement that Foster might not be back for Week One. Foster hasn’t practiced all preseason. ESPN lead fantasy analyst Matthew Berry slid him all the way down to number six in his most recent Top 200 rankings. And in our own numberFire mock draft, Foster slid to the fourth pick. Clearly he’s not in danger of slipping out of the first round this year, but he’s definitely moving down draft boards.
So why be so wary of Foster? In general, fantasy seasons aren’t won in the first round, but they sure can be lost. If you take a running back in the first round, and he finishes the season in the top 10 at the position, you’ve generally succeeded. If you’re picking in the top three, maybe you want your guy to finish a little higher, but in general, you just need solid production out of him.
However, if your first round pick flames out, then you very well might be sunk. There’s a lot of talk about the shortage of good running backs this year – a myth I don’t believe in – so if your top runner gets hurt and you didn’t draft deep at the position, you could be in a tough position. For instance, I drafted Adrian Peterson in our numberFire mock and then waited way too long on a second runner. If we played out the season with those teams, and Peterson got hurt, I’d be done despite my depth at other positions. Obviously you can’t predict injuries, but Foster’s already hurt and might already miss regular season action.
This is all to say that there is very little chance to separate yourself from the pack in the first round. The best you can hope for is a 45-50 point separation between the top backs and the rest of the first-rounders. That’s three points a week. Fantasy seasons are more often won by the Alfred Morrises and Russell Wilsons of the world – guys you can pick up for little or no cost who produce big. That’s where you can find the edge on other owners.
So that’s something to keep in the back of your mind when you’re on the clock and staring at Arian Foster’s name. Would you take him over Ray Rice, who’s one of only two backs to finish in the top 15 at the position in each of the last four years? Would you take him over C.J. Spiller, who put up 6.0 yards per attempt last year – same as Adrian Peterson – and is supposed to get 300 touches this year? Would you take him ahead of LeSean McCoy, who’s only one season removed from being the second-best back in fantasy and who now plays for a head coach who’s going to run the ball a ton in creative ways while running more plays than ever? Would you take him over Marhshawn Lynch, whose 462.2 fantasy points the last two years makes him the fourth-best back in the league over that span?
Now that Foster has been identified as a riskier play than previously thought, he comes with some higher costs as well. Sure, he was pricey as a top-five pick anyway, but now many owners view a Ben Tate handcuff as a must. Tate has shot up draft boards with the latest Foster news. Per fantasyfootballcalulator.com, Tate has gone from the end of the 8th round to the middle of the 7th since Sunday. If Foster doesn’t make quick progress, that ADP will keep creeping up, maybe even into the 6th round. That’s an awfully pricey handcuff. Is it really something you want out of your first-rounder?
Plus there are the stats you already know. Foster’s 956 carries over the last three seasons are the most in the league in that span by far. And his yards per carry have dropped every season he’s been the featured back. And Ben Tate is finally healthy enough to theoretically vulture carries and touchdowns.
Then there’s this - since 2006, exactly five backs have carried the ball 350 times or more in a season: Chris Johnson (2009), Adrian Peterson (2008), Michael Turner (2008), Larry Johnson (2006) and Foster last year. Chris Johnson averaged 1.3 fewer ypc the following season. Peterson, despite being the best running back alive, saw his ypc drop by .4 the following season. Turner had 200 fewer carries the following season, thanks to injuries. And Larry Johnson averaged .8 fewer ypc the next year, plus he never broke 200 carries or 1000 again. Every running back to carry the ball 350 times in the modern, pass-happy NFL saw a decline in his production the following season.
The odds are in favor of Foster having a good season. He is supremely talented player in a good situation on a very good team. We still have him projected to perform very well if he's healthy. I still think he's worth a pick late in the first round, and I generally subscribe to the very conservative first-round strategy that should make you wary of Foster.
But here’s the thing about math that drives people crazy and causes them to accuse Nate Silver of being a witch: probabilities aren’t absolute. Let’s say that Foster has an 80 percent chance of being a top-10 back, and a 20 percent chance of getting hurt and being a bust this year. (Note: numbers just made up by me, right now, since you can’t accurately forecast injuries.) That means, that if you could play this season five times in a vacuum, like Strat-o-matic or something, four of those times, Foster would be a stud. Good odds, right? But there’s still that lingering 20 percent chance he’ll flame out. Do you really want that in the back of your mind when all you’re trying to do is not blow your top pick? It's something to think about.