Without the help of a flux capacitor or Dr. Emmett Brown, this series will attempt to take a look back in time to help us predict the future dynasty results of some of our current fantasy stars. Arian Foster is the next running back in this series, and for a back that has been as successful as Foster, there's quite a disparity in his rankings. In our own dynasty rankings Foster is ranked anywhere from the tenth best back to the first. Critics cite his declining YPC and his heavy workload over the past three years. Proponents are enamored by his pass-catching ability and his red zone prowess. Which side is right?
Foster has finished as a top five fantasy back in each of the past three seasons. Over that span he's averaged nearly 1900 total yards and 16 touchdowns per season. There are very few backs to put together a three year run like this, especially this early in their career. The three backs that best compare to Foster through four seasons are Thurman Thomas, Shaun Alexander, and Emmitt Smith.
Shockingly, as good as these three backs had been to this point in their career, none of them had posted their career year yet. Also, naysayers of Foster seem to be right that the cliff is not too far off in the horizon, but which path is Foster more likely to take? Let's first look at the comps.
Thurman Thomas forecasts the most negative future for Foster. His career high came in year five, but he started a pretty steady decline immediately after that. Thomas had a then career-high 37 touches in his career year, followed by an incredible 403 the next season. Not surprisingly, after that he had only one more year in which he played 16 games. After averaging 4.6 YPC in his first five seasons, Thomas failed to break 3.8 YPC during his four year slide from fantasy relevance. Like Shaun Alexander, Thomas is a classic example of what a heavy workload can do to a running back.
Alexander was a prototypical workhorse that had averaged more than 350 touches for the past three seasons entering his fifth year. In the next two seasons, he would set career highs in yards, touchdowns, and YPC not once, but twice. The fifth and sixth seasons of his career were by far the two best that he had on the ground, but his receiving production dropped drastically. During those two seasons Alexander accumulated nearly 750 more touches, and like Thomas, fell apart shortly thereafter. As the chart suggests, Alexander's fall from grace was much more dramatic with injuries keeping him out of 21 games in the next three years before he retired at age 31. This is exactly the type of drop off that many are afraid of with Foster, but let's not forget that if Foster follows this path, he still has his two best seasons in front of him.
If you're looking for optimism about Foster's future, Emmitt Smith is your guy. Smith's arc followed a similar path to Alexander's in the first two seasons, with a drop off not quite as severe, and a nice bounce back later in his career. Smith was a freak about his conditioning, much like Foster is, and was able to withstand a ridiculous workload for a very long time. From this point of his career forward, he had 2 seasons with 300+ fantasy points and another 3 of solid RB1 production.
Now that we know which of the backs had the more successful run from their fifth year forward, let's compare their workload and production to Foster through four seasons to see which stats were most predictive:
One interesting note is that the running back that had the fewest touches early in his career broke down first. Emmitt Smith had 15% more touches than either back (Not to mention more than 800 touches in the next two seasons) and lasted the longest. In other words, there are a lot of things to consider when judging the longevity of a back other than workload. Foster is notorious for taking care of his body and looking for an edge. After going vegan last season he's added chicken and fish back to his diet, and he's a workout freak. On the other hand, he already has a history of hamstring problems and is currently nursing a calf injury. So what does this all mean?
OBSERVATIONS AND PROJECTIONS
I'm not really concerned about Foster's workload to this point in his career. He has a slightly checkered injury history, but I believe his work ethic all but cancels that out. The arc above shows that there is still a pretty good chance that we haven't seen the best of Foster, and that's something considering where he's ranked the past three seasons.
For me, Foster's age, ability, and situation make him the #1 running back in any format. I would project that his career year will come within the next two, and then he will begin a slow descent down the inevitable arc. I don't see Foster having the same longevity as Smith, but I think he easily outlasts Alexander. Since I only use a three year window in dynasty for running backs, I would expect Foster to be a RB1 for that entire time period, with at least one more season as the best running back in football.