With Arian Foster Likely Out for Some Time, Is There a Houston Back to Target in Fantasy Football?
Arian Foster and training camp injuries are forever linked. This year is no different.
Foster injured his groin and may require surgery to repair it, leaving his opening-day status in jeopardy. Foster was projected to be the second-best fantasy football rusher, according to our projections. Prior to the injury announcement, it became -- unsurprisingly -- known that the Texans want to run the football. A lot.
Given that the alternative is giving more control to whichever quarterback "wins" the competition between Ryan Mallett and Brian Hoyer, we should probably still expect the Texans to run the ball plenty.
That should indicate that some back is going to benefit, though with the current crop on the Houston roster, it might be more apropos to say that a few backs could benefit. Alfred Blue has been the one taking over the extra carries from Foster on the first-team in training camp, but can he really shoulder the load if Foster misses time?
Does any particular player stand out?
Setting the Bar High and Breaking Down Blue
The backup player behind Foster has long been a pretty valuable commodity in fantasy football, and this year, that is already the case.
Currently behind Foster on the depth chart is Blue, Jonathan Grimes, Chris Polk, and rookie Kenny Hilliard. Before really digging into them, we should probably just set the bar high. Like, Arian Foster high.
According to our Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, which compares a player's performance to expectation level and indicates how many points he adds to a team's expected outcome, Foster was the 10th-best running back among those with at least 100 carries last season. His Rushing NEP was 9.88, meaning he added 9.88 to the team's overall, expected point total. On a per-carry basis, that mark (0.03) ranked ninth among the 43 backs with at least 100 carries.
Foster also secured a Reception NEP of 27.28, which ranked sixth at the position, and his Total NEP (combined Passing NEP, Rushing NEP, and Reception NEP) of 37.40 also ranked sixth at the position. Dude's good.
How did the rest of the backfield fare?
Well, Blue was the only other back to see at least 40 carries last year with the Texans. His Rushing NEP, on 170 carries, was -21.20. That's negative. Really negative. That ranked him 40th among 43 backs with at least 100 carries. On a per-carry basis, his -0.12 mark ranked 38th, so that's something.
But Blue also struggled with moving the sticks forward on a consistent basis. His Rushing Success Rate, the percentage of his carries that added positively to the team's expected point outcome, was just 34.71%. That ranked 39th in the group.
Now, in fairness, Foster wasn't exactly Mr. Consistency himself last year. His Rushing Success Rate of 39.23% ranked 28th in the group. That still does indicate that Foster was significantly better. He also maintained it on 90 more carries, and the positive gains Foster did secure actually mattered, allowing him to net a positive Rushing NEP.
Blue was a bit of a non-factor in the passing game, as well. He hauled in 15 of 18 targets, but he secured a Reception NEP of just 9.48, which ranked 45th among all backs. His Reception NEP per target (0.53) did rank 11th among the 74 backs who saw at least 16 targets, but if we put much stock into that, then we have to say that Bruce Miller was one of the league's most efficient receiving backs last season.
Simply put, Blue was one of the league's worst running backs in the same system in which Foster played as one of the best. That's not inspiring.
The Rest of the Candidates
Grimes is listed third on the Houston depth chart currently, so that's a logical progression. Last year, Grimes ran the ball 39 times for the Texans. That was his largest sample size to date in his three seasons. He secured a Rushing NEP of -3.08. That ranked 19th among the 35 backs to see between 25 and 75 carries. On a per-carry basis (-0.09), he ranked 21st.
Grimes did maintain a Rushing Success Rate of 41.03%, but that ranked just 17th among the small-sample players. Further, Grimes caught just six passes, so we can't put much stock into his reception metrics.
The most intriguing name so far is Chris Polk, who played with the Philadelphia Eagles for the past two seasons. In 2013, Polk secured a 7.89 Rushing NEP on 11 carries, or 0.72 points per carry. That's absurdly unsustainable, but it at least showed a glimpse of breakout potential.
That did not come to fruition last year, though there are positives in his 46-carry sample from 2014. Polk managed a Rushing NEP of 1.61 on those carries, or 0.04 points above expectation with each tote. That cumulative and per-carry score ranked ninth among the 35 backs with between 25 and 75 carries. Perhaps the best sign was his Success Rate of 50.00%.
Now, Darren Sproles also owned a Success Rate of 50.00% on 56 carries, and LeSean McCoy was good on 41.40% of his carries. This suggests that either all three players were great or that the scheme and offensive line made things happen. It's likely a bit of both, but it's also likely more of the latter than the former. Still, the Eagles ranked 16th in our schedule-adjusted Rushing NEP per play metric, so they weren't overly elite overall. (For what it's worth, Houston ranked 25th last year.)
The final candidate is rookie Kenny Hilliard, a 6'0", 226-pound back. Hilliard ran the ball between 62 and 90 times at LSU and scored between 6 and 9 touchdowns each of his four seasons. That doesn't evidence explosiveness. Neither do his measurables, according to MockDraftable.com. To make matters worse, His top comparison, according to PlayerProfiler.com is Minnesota Vikings running back Matt Asiata.
The scary part is that we probably can't rule out Hilliard as a viable candidate, given how unimpressive the rest of the backs have been -- aside from Polk. Polk, however, is already dealing with a hamstring issue. Hamstring issues limited him during last season's training camp with the Eagles, and banking on a healthy season from Polk might not be a safe bet.
A Verdict of Sorts
It appears as though Alfred Blue will see the majority of the boost if Foster does miss time, even though he was very, very inefficient last season in his time on the field. Given the lack of track record and appeal for Grimes, the injury concerns for Polk, and the unimpressive athleticism of Hilliard, Blue is the go-to man by default, not necessarily by pedigree.
Hopefully more information comes out on Foster prior to fantasy draft season, and hopefully he's able to play a healthy 16-game season. In the meantime, though, all we can really do is see how the situation plays out and hope that Blue offers some semblance of efficiency in 2014 because he's likely going to be the primary beneficiary.
It's not a pretty situation, and without the threat of Arian Foster or a viable passing game, whichever back does end up with the starting gig might have trouble giving your fantasy team a boost.