A year ago, the running back we’ll discuss today who’s almost as good as the running back we discussed yesterday was nearly fantasy football’s consensus first overall pick. A funny thing happens when you earn that status — that lofty, sacred status — and you’re not the best player at your position, while you also finish out of the top 10 in overall fantasy scoring: hairs everywhere are split, and the search for the end begins.

That’s where we are right now with Arian Foster, as the fantasy community feels split on whether he’s rising, beginning his descent, or simply staying level.

He rushed for 1,424 yards last year. That’s good. But he also averaged a career low 4.1 yards per carry. That’s bad.

So which is it, and what the hell is really going on? Well, let’s go exploring.

Arian Foster the bad

That overall yards per carry number doesn’t quite tell the whole story (in a few ways…see below) of a significant period of plodding during Foster’s 2012 season, and it’s actually a little generous. In seven games (our math indicates that’s nearly half an NFL season), Foster had a YPC of 3.5 or worse, meaning he spent much more time digging out of holes than he did just not falling into them. He also had two games in which his longest carry was in the single digits. They came in the form of a five yarder in Week 6, and an eight yarder in Week 16. In the former example, Foster was saved by his ability to cross a line consistently which leads to points for his team, as he scored twice in that game despite rushing for only 29 yards on 17 carries.

Being saved by the touchdown Jesus was a common theme throughout Foster’s season. In total he scored 17 times, all but two of which came on the ground. Of his 250.5 fantasy points then, 102 were through touchdowns, which is 40.7 percent. Even if a player has scored consistently throughout his career as Foster has (his touchdowns by year since becoming Houston’s starting RB: 18, 12, 17), there will always be an unpredictable element associated with scoring, especially when we remember that 24.2 percent of Adrian Peterson’s 2012 production came from his touchdowns, and Doug Martin’s touchdowns accounted for 28.7 percent of his production.

But the most damning evidence for the case against Foster — and the one that I have to cite here by fantasy football writer guy law — is the many footballs he’s had to carry recently. He only carries one at a time, because anything else is illegal.

Including the postseason, Foster had 405 carries last year, and 460 touches overall. Usually when a running back passes the 400 carry mark in a single season, he can be taken behind a woodshed somewhere and shown to his home in the soil. Foster was put on that deadly track by averaging 26.4 carries over Houston’s first five games, and overall he logged seven games with 25 or more carries.

His previous single-season high was 327 carries in 2010, and year in which he had +25 carries in a game four times. Foster missed three games with a hamstring injury in 2011, which is also the year when he led the league with 25.5 touches per game, and earlier this offseason he did a scary thing when he was carted off the field after suffering what turned out to be a minor calf injury. This is the part when I remind you that when he turns 27 in August, Foster will sadly land in that vague territory between young and old for a running back.

His more frequent use as a conventional running back and not a pass catcher out of the backfield has produced a glaring concern too: a dramatic fall in his receiving yardage. In 2010 and 2011, Foster belonged among the elite pass catching RBs, with 604 receiving yards during his first full season as a starter, and 617 the next. Now? That number fell to 217 yards in 2012, a difference of 40 fantasy points compared to 2011.

His maker awaits?

Arian Foster the good

There are reasons to look at the above, and then do several shoulder shrugs. Just don’t do it by yourself in public, because that’s weird.

Firstly, there’s the addition to Foster’s supporting cast. When we talk about a high carry total, the underlying implication is that maybe and probably the running back in question would benefit from a bit of addition by subtraction. The equation looks something like this: a slight down-tick in carries to something a little more reasonable = fresher legs, and fewer opportunities to break. For Foster, that math comes in the form of DeAndre Hopkins, the Texans’ first-round pick in April, and the guy who’s finally set to provide something that resembles a respectable option opposite Andre Johnson.

No, he’ll do more than that, because Hopkins catches balls while falling, and with one arm pinned behind his back. Last year the Texans’ run-pass differential was a little too close over the course of an entire season, with 554 passes attempted, and 508 runs.

Then there’s the matter of those dwindling YPC numbers, and what they really mean. As Yahoo’s Brad Evans noted, Foster’s 29 carries inside the opponent’s five yard-line exceeded his 2011 total by 16. That short-yardage usage is swell for scoring both reality points and fantasy points, but goal-line carries that don’t end in touchdowns vacuum back that YPC pretty fast.

Here’s some more fancy between-line reading regarding that stat. When a running back is being criticized for a YPC which falls somewhere between putrid and downright disgusting, what we’re really saying is that he lacks burst. When he sees a hole, he either can’t hit it before the fresh green field is no longer there, or when he gets through said hole, he lacks the breakaway speed to accelerate down the field. With Foster, nothing could be further from truth talk.

His +20 yard carries by year are as follows…

  • 2010: 12
  • 2011 (missed three games): 7
  • 2012: 9

That’s a meager fall of three from his career high, which could again be attributed to fewer opportunities for longer runs with Foster used in short-yardage situations more often. Also quite notable: he had 38 carries for 10 or more yards in 2012, which is on par with Doug Martin.

The verdict

“Verdict” is a word that feels far too strong for a ruling on an outcome which will effect fake teams. Yet, here we are.

I like Foster, and I like him a lot. Not as much as I like, say, putting tuna on toast and then melting cheese on top. Seriously, try that.

I also don’t like Foster to be the No. 1 overall fantasy pick quite as much as Peterson, partly due to workload and breaking concerns, and partly due to a likely increased emphasis on the passing game with the introduction of Hopkins. But that doesn’t mean Foster should fall far, or really fall at all, even a little bit.

If the guy in your league who’s holding the No. 1 pick takes out his cookie cutter and plays his safest card with Peterson, it should take you 0.8 seconds to pick Foster right behind him. That falls in line with his current average draft position at Fantasy Football Calculator, where Foster is the second overall player off the board, with an ADP of 2.6.