Houston Texans running back Arian Foster has been medically cleared to return to football activities following his season-ending microscopic lumbar-discectomy surgery. Despite the encouraging signs of Foster‘s rehabilitation, many analysts believe his fantasy value is on the decline due to his questionable durability and health concerns.
Foster’s 2013 regular season was brought to an end after playing two snaps in the Texans' Week 8 game against the Indianapolis Colts. He suffered from a lumbar-disc herniation that caused lower-extremity radicular symptoms, so he underwent a season-ending microscopic lumbar-discectomy surgery on November 13 to alleviate his symptoms.
Foster announced on March 16, via Twitter, that his physician cleared him to return to football activities:
However, regardless of these encouraging signs that the 27-year-old Foster could be healthy heading into the preseason, many fantasy analysts are ranking Foster outside their first-round picks.
ESPN.com’s Christopher Harris ranked Foster as 10th among all fantasy running back for the 2014 regular season. ESPN.com’s Matthew Berry also has Foster as his 10th-ranked running back and as his 20th-ranked overall player.
Berry’s primary reason for ranking Foster so low—relative to previous seasons—is due to concerns about his health and durability.
Berry stated on ESPN's Fantasy Focus Football Podcast , “[Foster] is tough to evaluate right now because you just don’t know how healthy he is going to be. … If he is healthy, the concern is not his production, but can he hold up for the whole season, because he has had a lot of wear-and-tear over the past few seasons.”
In Foster’s five-year career, his injured body parts have included: knee, hip, quadriceps, calf, hamstring, and back. This plethora of various injured body parts suggests that Foster has a legitimate durability concern.
However, his lack of durability has been slightly overstated.
Excluding the eight games he missed last season due to his low-back surgery, Foster missed only three games in the three seasons prior to that. He has also played in 53 regular-season games since the beginning of the 2010 season.
Games Played from 2010 Regular Season to Now
As it appears now, following his physician medically clearing him, Foster’s microscopic lumbar-discectomy surgery was a success. And it bodes well for Foster that the majority of NFL players who have had this same surgery have not experienced a significant decline in their on-field production.
A 2010 retrospective cohort study (via journals.lww.com/spine journal—site subscription or article purchase required) by Dr. Wellington K. Hsu MD, “Performance-Based Outcomes Following Lumbar Discectomy in Professional Athletes in the National Football League,” concluded that NFL players who underwent a microscopic lumbar discectomy surgery, and then returned to play, did not see a significant decline from their pre-injury level of production.
Per the study: “There was no significant difference between the Performance Score preoperatively and postoperatively over the length of the players' careers. Age at diagnosis, body mass index, Pro Bowl appearances, and position played did not significantly affect outcome.”
These results should put fantasy analysts and players more at ease regarding Foster’s health concerns.
When Foster has been healthy, he has been an elite fantasy running back. From the 2010 to 2012 regular seasons, he was a top-four fantasy running back each season.
Additionally, in 2013, Arian Foster finished the regular season with a respectable 4.5 yards per carry; which left him ahead of many of the top running backs in that regard.
YPC in 2013 Regular Season
As Foster's 2013 game tape shows, he still has the physical attributes of an elite NFL running back. This includes his impressive running vision, top-end running speed and agility.
As of now, Foster’s situation appears good for 2014. Heading into OTAs, Foster is the Houston Texans premiere running back—backed up by the newly acquired and truly injury-prone Andre Brown. Additionally, the Texans have the 10th-ranked offensive line for run blocking by Pro Football Focus' advanced metrics.
As long as Foster does not have an unforeseen setback with his post-discectomy rehabilitation—which there is a very low chance of that occurring—his elite-level abilities and past production make him the sixth-best fantasy running back heading into the 2014 season.
In no specific order, he ranks behind only the following running backs: Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Charles, LeSean McCoy, Matt Forte and Marshawn Lynch.
Fantasy players are advised to not get caught up in the unjustified panic about Foster’s health, and draft him based on his past production and abilities.