Historical Perspective: Arian Foster's 2012 High Usage and Career Arc Comparison
There have been numerous studies about running back production and their workload from previous seasons. The famous “Curse of 370” has been argued both ways for years as well as comparing age-related decline against a running back’s career carries a career arc for a player.
Instead of establishing a specific number that is the certified “freak out” baseline for a running back, I wanted to look at similar seasons for Arian Foster’s high volume of 2012. Using ProFootballReference.com, I limited the search to the following specifications:
- Running Backs from the past 20 years
- 26 or 27 years of age during their high-use season
- At least 425 total touches, including the postseason
Going into the search, I thought I would find more running backs that fit the criteria than I ultimately did. In addition to Arian Foster, there were nine players that fit the above criteria.
|Year||Player||AGE||RS touches||YPC||PS touches||Total Touches||YPG|
In terms of running backs, these are some pretty significant names from the last two decades in terms of big production in fantasy. One observation that jumps out from the above list is Foster’s 4.1 YPC sits as No.7 of the 10 backs and his total yards-per-game (YPG) sits dead last among the group. That says that he was getting a ton of work, despite not being all that efficient in the process.
Now, it is time to look ahead. While there are many factors that go into any player’s season, historical comparisons can offer general trends based on common statistical traits of the group. First, let us look at overall fantasy performance. Here are the other nine backs and what did in their high-use season and then the following two years (Y+1, Y+2). Arian Foster has been included at the bottom of the list as a point of reference.
The first reaction I would imagine is “well, Jamal Anderson and Terrell Davis got hurt.” That is correct. They were obviously hurt the most in their production with a partial game the following season, which cut their PPG as well as their overall fantasy value. Even taking them out of the equation, 5-of-7 remaining backs dropped over 6.5 PPG and just one, Thurman Thomas, managed a similar season to their huge workload year. It is also worth mentioning that outside of Thurman Thomas’ 15.9 PPG, Arian Foster had the lowest average of the group. I like to use 16 PPG as the general baseline for an RB1 in fantasy terms and of these juggernauts in their high-use seasons, just 3-of-9 surpassed that baseline in Y+1. If owners expected a rebound to greatness in Y+2, that did not happen either: just 3-of-9 (Tomlinson being the lone holdover all three seasons) found their way back over the 16 PPG threshold in PPR two years removed from their season of 425+ touches.
In addition to their per-game fantasy production, here are how these backs fared in other metrics in their Y+1 seasons:
|Year||Player||YPC||Y+1 YPC||YPC Chg||Touches||Y+1 Total||YPG||Y+1 YPG||Y+1Chg|
This is where the rubber meets the road in my opinion. The YPC of the group took a collective dive in Y+1. Their group average fell from 4.5 to just 3.7 in Y+1. Thurman Thomas was the lone riser in the group, but he was a pedestrian 3.7 to start with, below the NFL average. In fact, Ahman Green and LaDainian Tomlinson were the only ones to surpass even 4.0 YPC the following season.
The next statistic of note in this chart is their total touches. They drop significantly the following season. Even excluding the injury twins (Anderson, Davis), the average falls from 421 (regular season only) to 322, nearly 100 touches. Finally, each one saw a dip in their YPG the following season. Considering their loss of efficiency and reduced workload, that should come as no surprise.
The concluding question fantasy owners need to ask themselves is where Arian Foster fits on this list of nine backs with a monster workload over the past 20 seasons. My take is that Foster is not the most talented on this list, but definitely no slouch either. Just going by the averages, Foster would be in line for a decline of 0.5 YPC (putting him in the 3.5-4.0 range) and a loss of about 6.0 PPG, which puts him in the RB2 range. Those may seems like “the sky is falling” type projections, but the general mentality about stud fantasy performers from a season ago is that they are destined to repeat that production going forward. The NFL and especially fantasy fantasy do not work that way.
Going one step further, I have a database of running back data going back to 1990. Looking at comparable players to Arian Foster in terms of career arc, Shaun Alexander, Deuce McAllister, and Eddie George are the most similar to Foster at this point in his career. Those three combined for just three seasons over 16 PPR PPG (RB1-type) years after the age of 26. Arian Foster has also benefits from the second-highest career TD rate of that quartet (4.36%), which means he needs to keep getting his high volume of goal line attempts for his best chance to maintain a high level of fantasy production in the next year or two. The problem with banking on a high touchdown rate is that it is one of the most fickle and regressive statistics we have in fantasy football, just search for any of the PFF articles on touchdown regression for any skill position.
One of the most difficult things to do in fantasy is to look ahead and not assume the past is a lock to continue. Arian Foster has been a proverbial stud for three seasons in a row now. How long does a reign like that last? Is he today’s LaDainian Tomlinson, a generational player with a productive window that every running back would kill for? To put Tomlinson and even Emmitt Smith in perspective, they were essentially “set your watch” RB1-types for 7+ years. Judging by what we have seen to this point, the short answer is Foster is not close at all. Tomlinson had 70.0 PPG above the PPR baseline of 12.0 PPG (roughly RB20-24 most seasons) through his age 27 season. Arian Foster, with one year to go, has just 30.6, less than half of that mark. Even with a season in 2013 like he just had, Foster would barely be half of the difference-maker Tomlinson was through age 27. Half.
Looking at running backs with a dominant three-year stretch from age 24-26, I found seven names similar to Foster: Tomlinson and Emmitt Smith, who were clearly better than Foster statistically and then five other names. Three of them have already been mentioned in the high workload seasons above (Green, Thomas, Davis) and two new ones: Shaun Alexander and Herschel Walker. While Tomlinson and Smith had three seasons of 16+ PPG each after the age of 26, the other five backs combined for just four such seasons. As I mentioned that Tomlinson and Smith had significantly better seasons compared to Foster through age 26, I consider the other subset of five backs far closer to Foster’s expected future.
From a redraft perspective, those five backs (excluding Tomlinson and Smith) averaged 15.1 PPG at age 27 with just one of them surpassing 16 PPG (Alexander). Looking with a longer-term lens (dynasty), those five averaged 11 PPG over their remaining 31 cumulative seasons in the NFL with 15 of them being above 12 PPG and, as mentioned above, just three total seasons as RB1 level (16+ PPG).
Overall, this is not rosy news for those that predict running backs to excel into their late-20s and remain high value pieces of dynasty rosters or high picks in redraft leagues without risk of a production falloff. While LaDainian Tomlinson and Emmitt Smith saw numerous seasons of 16+ PPG in their late 20s, that is the rare exception, not the typical running back career arc. They are the outliers, the rare combination of talent, health, situation, and opportunity. Arian Foster needs an 18 PPG season in 2013 just to match Steven Jackson’s PPG production through age 27 as a point of comparison.
Arian Foster is still being valued as a top-6 overall player in early 2013 dynasty drafts and I project his redraft ADP come August will be in the top-3 overall. Looking at the career arcs of similar players and those moving into the second-half of their running back careers (or final 25-35% of their above-baseline production), valuing Foster that high is a very risky endeavor.
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