It is very easy to poke holes in players when evaluating their potential for the upcoming season. For those evaluating Arian Foster, the supposed holes seem really large. Some will claim he wasn't an elite running back when healthy last season, others will point to the uncertainty of a new coach, and others will focus on the season-ending injury he suffered last year. Let's address each of those holes to see if there is anything truly worrisome.
First, was Foster really not elite last season? Consider this: Foster was truly healthy for only the first six games last year. During those games, he produced the sixth-highest fantasy-point total among running backs. Maybe you wouldn't consider that elite, but it's really, really good. What kept Foster from being elite during those six games was simple: He didn't get his normal amount of rush attempts inside the opponent's 10-yard line. In a typical season, Foster could count on receiving 2.6 carries per game inside the 10. Last season, that number plummeted to just over one chance. Since he has converted 30 percent of his career carries inside the 10 into touchdowns, the difference essentially resulted in a loss of four expected touchdowns. Had he had his normal opportunities and production in that area, Foster would have ranked as the second-highest running back during those six weeks.
Some may want to blame Foster's lack of opportunities inside the 10 on Foster directly, but that wouldn't be fair as Foster's average yards per carry of 4.5 was exactly in line with his career average. Instead, the blame should be placed on the shoulders of Matt Schaub, who gifted away nine possessions via the interception during the Houston Texans' first five games. Don't look for Ryan Fitzpatrick to be as bad, which should result in fewer drives cut short via the interception and more opportunities for Foster.
Next up is the impact that his new head coach, Bill O'Brien, can be expected to have. Many will point to O'Brien's tenure as the New England Patriots' offensive coordinator as indicative of what to expect. Such an expectation would be wholly unfair. The Patriots' aerial attack under O'Brien was dominant in a way that few others have been. Instead, look to O'Brien's philosophy during his two-year tenure as Penn State's head coach.
In Happy Valley, the Nittany Lions were known for an aerial approach, but that seems like a case of a first impression that stayed too long. Over the two seasons that O'Brien was head coach, the rushing attack improved from just 3.6 yards per carry in 2012 to 4.2 in 2013. That change (a 15 percent improvement) is a showcase statistic that represents O'Brien's commitment to the run. Furthermore, the Nittany Lions got 40 percent of their offensive production via the run last season. When you compare that to the 37 percent average for the Houston Texans over the 2011, 2012 and 2013 seasons, it's safe to say there will be plenty of rushing opportunities for Foster.
Finally, the last major reason people don't want to trust Foster is the back injury that ended his 2013 season. The surgery, a microdiscectomy, is not uncommon in the NFL. Rob Gronkowski underwent one in June 2013 and returned to his dominant self before suffering an unrelated injury. Steven Jackson had this surgery in April 2010 and then posted the third-best rushing yardage total of his career. Since Foster had this surgery in November, it's safe to say that this is a non-issue going forward. For why this may actually even help to reduce the hamstring issues that he has occasionally faced, read Stephania Bell's column.
With those three holes addressed, it's time to compare Foster with those running backs currently being taken before him according to ESPN.com's average draft position, specifically Doug Martin and Eddie Lacy.
Martin has a current ADP slightly earlier than Foster. Ironically, Martin is facing the exact same questions as Foster. Martin, of course, was a complete bust last season, even when he played. He has a new head coach in Lovie Smith and is attempting to return from a season-ending torn labrum. Of course, there were plenty of people who actually had questions about Martin entering last season, mainly because a significant portion of his 2012 statistics came in four games against the AFC West, opponents that he wouldn't be facing during 2013. Martin didn't answer those concerns, so those questions should still remain this year.
Lacy sits more comfortably above Foster in ADP. While Lacy dominated for a long stretch of the 2013 campaign, his splits with and without Aaron Rodgers should not be ignored. With Rodgers on the field, Lacy rushed 136 times for an average of just 3.9 yards per carry and scored four rushing touchdowns. With Rodgers off the field, Lacy rushed 148 times for an average of 4.4 yards per carry and scored seven rushing touchdowns. Those splits are significant and based on the fact that the Green Bay Packers' game plan revolves around Rodgers, there is a significant risk in selecting Lacy in the first round. If Lacy replicates the Rodgers-on-the-field split this season, he will not be worthy of the first-round selection that you will use to draft him.
It's up to you to decide the level of risk that exists with Foster. For me, I don't see a significant enough risk to allow Foster to fall past the fifth running back selected (LeSean McCoy, Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Charles, Matt Forte). You should also consider the real risk of those you may consider taking before Foster comes off the board. If you are intellectually honest, it's very hard to elevate Martin or Lacy above Foster because they both should have tough questions asked about their projected values. I understand that many don't want to be the guy who stays on a particular player's bandwagon too long, but what most forget is that it is equally as bad to get off one someone's bandwagon too early. Since I believe that Foster still has plenty left in the tank and is poised to reclaim his spot among the game's elite, I am not at all afraid of drafting him this season and strongly suggest that you shouldn't be either.