Arian Foster might not play quarterback for the Houston Texans, and his return from injury might not make as many headlines as who'll be under center, but make no mistake about new head coach Bill O'Brien's offense: Foster is going to be the one who shines.
Leading up to the NFL draft, all we heard about the Texans concerned who the quarterback was going to be this season.
Was it going to be Ryan Fitzpatrick, Case Keenum, T.J. Yates or someone new?
While those storylines have their place, Foster's return from a back injury that sidelined him for most of the 2013 season has its place as well.
|Arian Foster's regular season numbers|
After three consecutive seasons with at least 275 carries, 1,200 yards and 10 rushing touchdowns, Foster's disappointing 2013 season was pretty representative of the Texans overall.
Picking up just two wins all year en route to having the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, new head coach Bill O'Brien brings a new offense and hopefully a new result to Houston.
After spending the last two seasons as the head coach at Penn State, accumulating a 15-9 record in 2012 and 2013 combined, O'Brien still brings plenty of NFL credibility.
O'Brien spent five years with the New England Patriots, holding several different offensive coaching positions and finishing up as the offensive coordinator in 2011.
While he won't have Tom Brady under center in Houston, O'Brien's offensive philosophy lends itself well to Foster having a bounce-back season in 2014, via John McClain of the Houston Chronicle.
O’Brien ... is a fiery, animated, demanding offensive coach who’s innovative and aggressive, according to those who followed him closely at Penn State.
He likes to use multiple tight ends, and ... is a strong proponent of the running game. He uses a fullback part of the time.
The fact that O'Brien likes to use multiple tight end sets, fullbacks and has already praised Foster for the versatility he can bring to their offense, there's no reason to think Foster can't clearly regain his status as one of the league's best running backs this season, according to the Houston Chronicle, via Jenny Dial Creech of UltimateTexans.com.
The most important thing to do is to make sure that you look at the player’s skill set and figure out how they fit your system or our system. What we do is if we have a back for instance that is a three-down back like Arian (Foster) is, a guy that can play on first, second and third down, then you’re finding ways to incorporate him into the passing game and the running game and it really works out well for your offense.
Looking back at O'Brien's time with the Patriots and some of the ways he created mismatches with his offensive personnel groupings, which put his players in a situation they could be successful, Foster immediately comes to mind as benefitting from these types of groupings this season.
Lots of "12" personnel groupings when he was with the Patriots, meaning two tight ends and just one running back. He's also used three tight end looks—another situation in which defenses have to respect the run strictly because of what the offense is showing from a personnel standpoint.
Here's a look at the first play from scrimmage for the Patriots in the 2011 playoff game against the Denver Broncos.
That's Aaron Hernandez, a tight end, who motioned back to line up like a fullback in a three-point stance in front of the running back.
Rob Gronkowski is lined up in-line outside of the right tackle.
On the second play from scrimmage, the Patriots went with a bunch formation to the left, which included both Hernandez and Gronkowski.
Both of these formations force defenses to respect the run with the personnel they put onto the field. Luckily for the Patriots, the players who were out on the field created those mismatches as well.
But in regards to O'Brien's personnel with the Texans right now, Garrett Graham and Ryan Griffin are solid options at tight end, while third-round pick C.J. Fiedorowicz might surprise some people as well.
O'Brien ran the ball more than 40 times per game on average last season at Penn State, averaging 174 yards per game on the ground.
With all of the "beef" that O'Brien likes on the field together—meaning fullbacks and tight ends—Foster will be running in traffic often and will use the vision that separates him from other running backs in the NFL.
Here's a play from Foster last season before his injury:
Right after getting the handoff, Foster could have bounced the play to the right and picked up some yardage.
You can see from the pre-snap read that the defense has just a 1-technique defensive lineman shading the center and right guard, with a defensive end rushing from a 7-technique off the outside shoulder of the right tackle.
There was a hole right between the right guard and right tackle from the beginning.
In the second picture you can see Foster could have immediately gone through the lane illustrated by the blue lines.
But he pressed the hole and caused the inside linebacker (yellow square) to hesitate before attacking the open lane.
This is Foster demonstrating patience, awareness and vision all in one play.
With all of the blockers on the field in heavy personnel with O'Brien next season, Foster will use these same skills to utilize his blockers, understand his lanes and ultimately run the plays in the way they were designed.
If the Texans are looking at multiple "12" and "21" offensive personnel groupings, Foster's one-cut-and-go vision should go a long ways in helping regain that ability that made him a household name around the NFL.
Obviously, it's going to matter who is under center for the Texans next season and how well they're playing in regards to Foster's production.
Right now it looks like Ryan Fitzpatrick will be the starter at quarterback, and if he struggles early and often, Foster's impact will obviously be affected.
But with a strong defense and adequate quarterback play, there's no reason to think the Texans won't rely heavily on the ability of their star running back to return healthy from injury and pace this offense in hopes of returning to the top of the AFC South division.
Foster's skill set and abilities are a good match with the offensive system and personnel groupings O'Brien has shown throughout his coaching career. Lots of big bodies for Foster to read and follow as he continues to demonstrate the vision that's made him such a special player.
If you're looking for a Comeback Player of the Year candidate, you don't have to look any further than Foster.