The first three weeks of the 2016 NFL free-agency period are in the rear-view mirror, and teams are switching gears as the NFL draft approaches. The frenzy of free agency didn’t last long, as top names were signed to big-money deals quickly. Veterans coming off injury and unproven players make up the current crop of available talent.
The most talented unrestricted free agent left is running back Arian Foster. The former Houston Texans running back accumulated 1,454 carries, 6,472 yards and 54 touchdowns on the ground with the franchise before they cut bait. Foster’s release saved the Texans $6.625 million in cap space, according to Spotrac.
Talent has never been an issue for Foster, but health certainly has. He’s missed 29 games since his rookie year in 2009, with 12 coming in 2015. But if Foster can fully recover from a torn Achilles, he will prove to be a free-agent steal in 2016.
Foster will be 30 years old by the end of training camp. His price will likely be the veteran’s minimum on a one-year contract. The expectations that came with his old contract and role in Houston no longer exist, including the hope that he’ll be the workhorse for a full 16-game season.
But Foster doesn’t necessarily need to be the No. 1 back or the carry the entire offensive load to be effective. He’s been remarkably productive despite being an average athlete for the position. His pro day numbers coming out of the University of Tennessee were all below average when compared to running back averages at the combine since 1999.
|Arian Foster Pro Day vs. NFL Combine Averages|
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He hasn’t needed elite athletic traits to be successful in the NFL, though. The former undrafted free agent crafted a long career with elite patience and ability to create additional yards through angle manipulation.
“Patience” for a running back is a football jargon-type buzzword that seems to be overused as a positive trait in evaluation. Few NFL backs consistently buy time for their offensive line to complete blocks or string along defenders to a certain spot on the field to create an advantageous angle on the second level. Foster, Le’Veon Bell and Frank Gore are top examples.
While an athletic baseline is required to take advantage of the mental aspect of the game, those who master such a nuance are more likely to enjoy a longer career. It just happens to be one of the rarest refinements for the position.
To see if Foster could still execute at a high level, I studied his 2014 and 2015 seasons. His production drastically dropped in 2015 prior to the injury, which raised concerns that he had hit the running back wall. He averaged just 2.6 yards per carry in four games.
My findings were quite encouraging for the outlook of Foster’s career. His production in 2014 was excellent, as he finished with 1,246 yards and eight touchdowns in only 13 games. The tape showed a creative back who was not only taking everything the offensive line gave, but also someone who was constantly finding more yards.
The Texans' zone-blocking scheme has been wildly successful ever since former head coach Gary Kubiak implemented it. Current head coach Bill O’Brien continued using it since the team’s personnel fit the demands of the scheme. Athletic linemen who can create cutback lanes are more valuable than pure power-blockers.
Running backs who can cut sharply and read where the holes are opening just as fast fit the scheme. The purpose is to be consistently gaining positive yards, and chunk plays are less of a focus, although certainly still desired. It’s not overly hard to find backs capable of doing their job in this scheme, which is why teams running it have had success with less-heralded collegiate prospects.
However elite-level zone-runners are still premier playmakers because they’re doing more than the simplest of tasks. Even in a three-yard gain like the one above shows Foster keeping his feet active in the backfield as the crashing defensive end establishes the edge, but a hole pops open in the middle. Eventually these small victories turn into big plays that extend drives or set up scores.
This was certainly the case against the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2014. Foster finished the game with 102 rushing yards on 20 carries. His longest carry was 33 yards, and it was made possible because of his decision-making and patience to pull the linebackers toward him before cutting back upfield.
As Foster nears the line of scrimmage, two clear paths seem to reveal themselves. The inside-zone play asks Foster to either stay front-side or cut toward the weak side, depending on what he sees. Foster notices the weak side has more room, as the Steelers nose tackle, No. 99, has momentum in the other direction.
Instead of quickly cutting, he gets as close to his blockers as possible because he’s already setting up safety Troy Polamalu on the second level. If he can get Polamalu to bite inside hard enough, he’ll overpursue, then Foster just has to beat the would-be tackler who is preoccupied with the left tackle.
The same type of nuance was seen on the first play of the same game. The zone play reveals the best option is to cut in the A-gap between the center and right guard, although linebacker James Harrison, No. 94 will have a clear shot at Foster if he’s not careful. Foster first manipulates linebacker No. 51, who is being blocked by the center, to shade toward the front side of the play to help open space for his cutback.
Foster presses the line perfectly, then sharply hits another cut as he knows Harrison will attempt the tackle. His ability to quickly transfer his weight allows him to shed the tackle via a spin, and he’s in the secondary just like that. What was almost a four-yard gain became 11 yards in a split second.
This talent wasn’t suddenly lost in 2015 despite the numbers being brutally bad. Houston’s offensive line was the same, but the lack of a consistent passing game allowed opponents to key in on Foster and the running game even more so than 2014. Defenses loaded the box and aggressively attacked angles like the play above.
Foster exhibited the fact that he’s still completely in control and devastatingly talented last year. Below we see what Foster created against an eight-man box and faced with a dead end on initial cut. Most backs would have run into defensive end Cameron Wake’s trap as he properly set the edge, but he danced while moving forward to find the slightest crease.
His subtle movement bought time for his blockers but also had Wake believing he was able to finish the play. And he wasn’t wrong for thinking that. Take a look at Wake’s positioning upon Foster’s crucial cut.
There are very few backs in the NFL capable of shaking a defender the caliber of Wake in this situation. Foster should’ve been dead in his tracks but instead ripped off his longest run of the day.
General managers looking for a potentially elite back on a cheap deal should have their fingers crossed that Foster will be ready to play this fall. According to ESPN’s Tania Ganguli, Foster is on track to be recovered by training camp. Expect him to start working out for teams at that time.
Of all running backs who were available this offseason, only Lamar Miller had the type of talent Foster brings to the table. His injury history and age mean he’ll be virtually a no-risk signing, but the upside is huge. Teams looking for a rotational second back to pair with a younger player must take a look at Foster.
The Miami Dolphins, Denver Broncos, Baltimore Ravens, New York Giants, Seattle Seahawks and Dallas Cowboys are all ideal systems and situational fits. The Oakland Raiders and Indianapolis Colts also make sense based on their current rosters. That’s an expansive list because he’s a clear upgrade if healthy.
All stats used are from sports-reference.com.
Ian Wharton is an NFL Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.