Houston Texans running back Arian Foster turns 29 in August, and it seems as though his days as an All-Pro runner may be coming to an end. As he nears what is undoubtedly the downward slope of his career, the Texans must ask themselves if they want to get out while they’re still ahead, or wait until he is no longer effective.
ESPN’s Todd McShay has already written a projection for the 2016 NFL Draft, and in it he predicts that the Texans will take Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott with the 15th overall pick. It’s clear that he thinks Elliott, who scored four touchdowns in the Buckeyes’ National Championship victory over the Oregon Ducks in 2015, would be a good fit as a replacement for the aging Foster.
Foster, however, seems to still be pretty effective. Just last week NFL.com analyst Michael Fabiano ranked Foster 4th in his Top 100 fantasy football players for the 2015 season. Last season Foster was 6th in rushing yards and 8th in touchdowns, and he was able to do this after bouncing back from an injury-riddled 2013 season.
Therein lies the key as to why it’s time to start the process of replacing Arian Foster: his injury-riddled 2013 season, and his frequent injuries every other season he’s played. Only twice in his NFL career has he played a full 16 game season, and he’s had at least five major surgeries since college because of injuries.
Each of these injuries has been in his back or legs, places that receive large amounts of wear and tear daily as a running back. Yes he can be an excellent player when healthy, but just how many more times can Foster get hit until he needs another surgery, and misses another half season?
Last year ESPN’s Kevin Seifert published studies on NFL running backs, noting that they begin to drop off in production after age 27, dropping by roughly 40% by the time they hit 30. If Foster follows this trend, it seems almost certain that Houston will not resign him when he becomes an unrestricted free agent in 2017.
The question is if they will replace him before his contract expires, or try to squeeze all of the production out of him before him. Foster, who is very active on social media and in the public is a fan-favorite, and even admired by other young players in the league. Houston may hesitate before dumping a player so well-liked. There has also been a history of elite running backs remaining productive, even past the 30-year barrier.
NFL Hall of Fame running backs Walter Payton, Barry Sanders, and Emmitt Smith all ran for over 1,000 yards at the age of 30 or older, showing the world that the best can avoid this age drop-off at least for a bit. They all played in a different age though, and today’s league seems to value young fresh running backs over older worn-down ones.
If there’s any good way to get young fresh running backs, it’s through the draft, so it makes sense for Houston to ride Foster for this next season, but drafting a running back should be a priority for them in 2016. As tough as it is to say, Arian Foster’s days in a Texans uniform are numbered, and the team needs to prepare for the inevitability that someone will have to take his place.
If Foster can continue to be productive this next season he may give himself an opportunity to stay with the team, and possibly transition into a lesser role behind a younger running back. If not, he may quickly find himself out in the cold, looking for a new team.