Will Arian Foster Bounce Back as an Elite Three-Down Back?

After battling injury in his 2013 campaign, is Arian Foster ready to bounce back for the Texans in 2014?

It was the first time I’d ever been to a live draft. Not only that, but this one was an auction draft, which meant I’d have to throw a name out to begin the bidding. As I scrolled up and down the list of names, I tried to find a player who could gain me some respect among the room full of veterans of this long-standing fantasy league. I pondered throwing out Packers' quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, or Texans' wide receiver, Andre Johnson.

As the only rookie to attend, that would have been the easiest thing to do.

Instead, I threw out a second-year, virtually-unknown running back, Arian Foster, of the Texans. I thought my starting bid of $15 within the $250 budget would have been a good one; however, when I heard crickets for what seemed like the longest five seconds of my life, I questioned myself for the remainder of the draft. Was my evaluation of the last two games of his rookie season in 2009 where he rushed for 216 yards and three rushing touchdowns merely an illusion or figment of my imagination?

Foster, as fantasy junkies know, burst onto the scene in 2010 by rushing for a league-leading 1,616 rushing yards and 16 rushing touchdowns. He proved to be one of this game’s best three-down backs by catching 66 balls for an additional 604 receiving yards. Turns out, I shouldn't have second guessed myself that day after all.

Since then, Foster has had decent success in the league by conventional metrics, but has struggled to get back to being known as an elite three-down back. Part of this may be his injuries which have kept him sidelined at times; Foster missed three games in 2011 with hamstring issues, and he missed half of his team's games a year ago with a back injury. Let's see what the numbers say.

Foster, By the Numbers

Below are Foster's 2010 Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP) and Reception NEP numbers as compared to the league's best three-down running backs and league averages (league averages are based upon a 150 carry minimum). To learn more about our awesome NEP metric, click here.

Player YearRushesRush NEPRecRec NEPTotal NEP
Jamaal Charles201023244.884534.2679.13
Arian Foster201032627.906640.6868.58
LeSean McCoy201020821.547829.3650.90
League Average 2010230.77-6.8835.0916.039.04

As this data suggests, Foster's combined Rushing and Reception NEP ranked him second behind Jamaal Charles in Total NEP that season. Foster's breakout in 2010 saw him soar past the league average in all categories. He established himself as a top-flight, dual-threat back that the league would certainly have to account for years to come.

While Foster's 2010 season placed him 15th since 2000 in the Rushing NEP category and 19th in Reception NEP for a running back, he didn't produce anywhere near those same metrics in any of his other three seasons in the league. Case and point: the following chart will showcase his noticeable fall from grace as a rusher and a receiving option.

PlayerYearRushesRush NEPRecRec NEPTotal NEP
LeSean McCoy201127325.714820.8646.57
Arian Foster2011279-3.605334.3930.79
Jamaal Charles20122842.70367.6510.36
LeSean McCoy2012200-14.735421.817.08
Arian Foster2012351-6.68403.38-3.31
Jamaal Charles201326013.937054.6668.59
LeSean McCoy201331437.125231.1168.22
Arian Foster20131210.52227.127.65
League Average '11-'13228.54-3.8932.0313.009.14

Foster, as you can tell by his carries, served as the workhorse back, as he topped 300 carries in his first two seasons as a starter, and was on his way to 300 again in 2011 if it weren't for his missing three games due to injury. This may have played a role in his major dip in production compared to 2010. Foster didn't rank above the league average in Rushing NEP once, and only ranked above average in Reception NEP and Total NEP once per category.

It seems evident that his quantity of touches needs to be decreased a bit in order to perhaps increase his effectiveness and help protect against injury caused by overuse. In other words, classic philosophies such as: "addition by subtraction" or "less is more" are ones that new Head Coach Bill O'Brien should consider where Foster's workload is concerned going into his first season as an NFL head coach.

New Beginning

With Bill O’Brien coming on as the team’s head coach this year, many reports have surfaced about Foster’s role in the offense. O’Brien was quoted as saying Foster will be a major factor in the Texans’ offense, not exclusively in the running game. He believes Foster can fill in the third-down role, as former Patriots’ running backs Danny Woodhead and Kevin Faulk did during his tenure as coordinator.

If O'Brien's confidence remains, Foster will have the opportunity to bounce back as an elite three-down back. Then again, this means a potential increase in touches, which could prove as detrimental to his overall success in reaching that designation among the elites.

There are people who evaluate Foster's success and chalk it up to the blocking scheme, as the Texans' were infamous for implementing the zone-blocking scheme. The scheme's goal is to use the defense's aggressive nature against itself by having smaller, quick-footed lineman block as a unit while running, which forces the defense to flow one way or the other. The running back's responsibility is to push the hole and then make a cut back when he sees the opening in the defense.

O'Brien is tagged as having a pro-style offense, which is more of a power-blocking scheme. This scheme is simple; linemen are responsible for their specific assignment against the opposition and holes are generated by them winning individual battles on the line of scrimmage.

Though O'Brien isn't known for using a zone-blocking scheme, he is a disciple of Patriots' head coach Bill Belichick. Although Belichick is mainly seen as more of a defensive-minded coach, he does have one quality that allows him to generate great offense. He is excellent at putting his players in a position to succeed. If O'Brien follows Belicheck's philosophy, he will likely use more zone-blocking schemes to ensure that Foster's unique talents are maximized.

Now, this is certainly an assumption on my part as being a "disciple" of Belichick doesn't at all guarantee that O'Brien will follow his model for success. But O'Brien seems to have a clear plan for Foster, and all we can do at this point is project what lies ahead. Adding to that, O'Brien does use a lot of two tight end, one fullback sets, which are certainly familiar to Foster from ex-head coach Gary Kubiak's offense.

How Will Foster Perform?

Foster, as the NEP metrics indicate, was not a perennial top-tier three-down back as many might have otherwise believed. However, his initial season in the league still resonates with many analysts and fans as an amazing entrance to the NFL scene.

Can he re-emerge? Time will tell, but I suspect O'Brien will positively impact Foster. And if the Texans can get competent quarterback play from their starter, Ryan Fitzpatrick, he will be more likely to do so.

What we do know is that he has upside, and should get the bulk of the carries in what could be a run-heavy offense. Don't be surprised if he ends up as an RB1 in fantasy football this year.