Arian Foster, after one of his many house-calls (USAT Images)
"Yeah, I'll be ready."
So said Arian Foster when asked about his availability for Houston's season-opener at San Diego. He's been sidelined by back and calf issues throughout the summer, finally returning to practice this week.
If you find Foster's recent self-assessment to be convincing, then you should have the guy somewhere in the 2-5 range on your draft board. He led the NFL in both touchdowns (17) and touches (391) last season, plus he ranked eighth in total yards (1641). He's been a remarkably productive back over the past three years, averaging 1900.7 scrimmage yards and 15.7 TDs per season.
True, Foster has an annoying habit of delivering disastrous performances at critical times...
Week 15, 2010 – 11 carries, 15 rush yards, 46 receiving, 0 TDs
Week 14, 2011 – 15 carries, 41 rush yards, 33 receiving, 0 TDs, fumble
Week 16, 2012 – 10 carries, 15 rush yards, 14 receiving, 0 TDs, fumble
...but I don't think he's actively trying to sabotage anyone's fantasy team (even if he does kinda hate us).
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Foster's per-touch production dipped significantly in 2012, we should note, as he averaged a career-low 4.06 yards per carry and only 5.43 per catch. He gained just 2.2 yards per carry after contact last season, according to Pro Football Focus, which ranked below such fantasy luminaries as Donald Brown, Michael Turner and Daniel Thomas. (For comparison's sake, AP led all backs in yards after contact at 3.9 per carry. CJ Spiller averaged 3.6, Doug Martin 3.2, Alfred Morris 3.0, and Marshawn Lynch 2.8.) So it's entirely possible that heavy usage is catching up with Arian.
But of course heavy usage is also part of his appeal. If Foster is getting 320-plus touches, he doesn't necessarily have to be top-of-the-charts in terms of efficiency. Nobody plays in a yards-after-contact fantasy league. The Texans ranked fourth in the NFL in rush attempts last year (508) and they tied for first in 2011 (546), so workload hasn't been a worry.
With Foster now ambulatory and practicing, I've bumped him back into my overall top-five. I don't expect him to approach last year's league-leading touch total — not with Ben Tate operating at full capacity — but he's nearly a lock for double-digit TDs. It's reasonable to expect Foster's early-season responsibilities to be dialed back, considering his late start in camp, but I still trust him to pile up numbers.
Tate is just a year removed from a 942-yard season, you'll recall, so he has to be viewed as more than a handcuff. He opens the season as a flex-approved player, and he'll rank as a must-start fantasy back if he ever falls into a full workload. Right now, Tate is dirt-cheap at the draft table (ADP 119.7), worth targeting whether or not you're a Foster investor. Further down the depth chart, boring vet Deji Karim is battling rookies Cierre Wood and Dennis Johnson for the No. 3 spot. This seems worth mentioning, because Houston's junior varsity has coughed up more than one useful back over the years, Foster included.
(Remember when we all loved Ryan Moats? Good times).
Quarterback Matt Schaub definitely had his moments last season, but he was useless down the stretch, in the big weeks. Over the Texans' final four games, three of which were losses, he threw just one touchdown pass. When Houston needed a win last December to clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, the team somehow managed to play its way out of a bye.
At this stage in Schaub's career, the argument can be made that he's the most dangerous variety of NFL quarterback — too good for his team to launch, not good enough to get them to a Super Bowl. But that's a Houston problem, not a fantasy problem. Schaub has thrown for over 4000 yards in three of the past four seasons, and he typically erupts once a year, giving us an unexpected 400-yard, 4-TD game ... on your bench. He's productive enough to visit your fantasy roster as a bye-week option, though he won't start in standard formats. Schaub was much more appealing in our game back when his team's defense was a steaming mess, which led to weekly shootouts.
Andre Johnson remains the unrivaled top receiving option for the Texans, and he's coming off a 112-catch, 1598-yard season. AJ is healthy at the moment (not always the case for him in August) and he caught seven balls for 131 yards in Sunday's preseason win over New Orleans. Reports of his demise have been ... well, they're [expletive], is what they are. Johnson is 32, not 42. He's not on his football deathbed. He averaged 10.1 targets per game last season, and he was at his best in the final weeks — he had 1001 receiving yards over Houston's last seven games.
Johnson's major flaw, fantasy wise, is the curious lack of touchdowns. He visited the end zone just four times last season on 112 receptions, and he's never topped nine TDs in any of his 10 NFL campaigns. It's a little weird for a player as dominant as AJ, gifted with his size (6-foot-3, 230), to score so infrequently. But in this case, we shouldn't fault the player as much as his offense. The Texans are a brutally predictable team in the red zone. AJ saw just four targets inside the 10-yard line last season; Foster had a league-high 42 carries in the same area, plus he was thrown to five times. So unless the old habits change, we can't realistically project more than 5-8 TDs from Johnson.
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AJ and Schaub, still dancing (USAT Images)
AJ and Schaub, still dancing (USAT Images)
Clemson wideout DeAndre Hopkins was a first-round pick on draft day, and he quickly made noise in the preseason, the moment he stepped on the field. (Hit that link for highlights, plus a projection.) Hopkins has a clear chance to be a useful fantasy/reality weapon, a terrific complement to AJ. He was absurdly productive last season at the collegiate level (82-1405-18), and he came up huge in the biggest games (13-191-2 vs. LSU). As a rookie, he'll feast on single-coverage opportunities throughout the year. Hopkins won't necessarily need to poach many of Johnson's targets, either. If he simply inherits the 68 that went to Kevin Walter last year plus a share of James Casey's 45, he'll give us a productive season. Hopkins is navigating the league's concussion protocol at the moment, so let's hope he recovers fully, in time for the regular season opener. He's legit, draftable as a WR4 with upside. None of the names behind him on the depth chart — Lestar Jean, Keshawn Martin, Alec Lemon, et al — are half as interesting.
For reasons unknown, fantasy drafters don't seem terribly excited by Houston tight end Owen Daniels this season (ADP 81.2), despite the fact that he just delivered 716 yards and six scores in 2012. He's healthy at the moment and he remains one of Schaub's preferred targets. Daniels offers a guaranteed return. And yet all the cool kids are chasing Jordan Cameron, then declaring victory. Well, that's fine with me — I'll gladly take Daniels and his dull production. If he gets dinged at any point, fourth-year tight end Garrett Graham will get interesting.
The Texans D is a championship-quality group, with playmakers at every level. This defense allowed only five rushing TDs last year, which is just silly. DE JJ Watt is a top-of-the-ranks IDP coming off a ridiculous individual season: 20.5 sacks, 16 PDs, four FFs, 81 tackles. LB Brian Cushing is ready to go, recovered from an ACL repair. New arrival Ed Reed is working his way back from hip surgery, expected to be cleared soon. We'll be drafting this D/ST in all leagues, starting them early and often. Houston opens with games against the Chargers and Titans, so the early defensive stats should be uncommonly useful.
2012 team stats: 26.0 points per game (8), 252.9 passing yards per game (12), 132.7 rushing yards per game (8)
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