Commentary

Instant Replay: Arian Foster dominates

Updated: September 13, 2010, 12:19 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

If Merriam-Webster is looking for a picture to post next to its definition of "sleeper," there's an ideal candidate: Arian Foster of the Houston Texans.

Now, the term sleeper is easy to toss around, and your instinct might be to point out that he was a fifth-round fantasy pick (average draft position: 49.3, 47th overall), so it's not as if we can say that he perfectly fits the definition of "someone or something unpromising or unnoticed that suddenly attains prominence or value." Many of us knew who Foster was, even before his Week 1-best 41-point fantasy outburst.

Rather, the reason Foster fits that definition is because of his rapid, out-of-nowhere ascent from no-name running back to NFL stardom. What Week 1's fantasy standout has done in a year and a half's time is nothing short of extraordinary. To wit:

• Despite tallying 2,964 yards in four years at Tennessee, second-most in Volunteers history, Foster went undrafted in 2009. He ended up signing with the Texans on May 1, a week after sneaking through the NFL draft unselected.

• Foster failed to crack the Texans' season-opening roster during his rookie year of 2009, was released on Sept. 5 and re-signed to the practice squad a day later.

• Foster was signed to the active roster last Nov. 17, following the Texans' Week 10 bye, to help provide depth at running back for a team that had received lackluster performances from Steve Slaton, Chris Brown and Ryan Moats.

• When Slaton was injured the following week, Foster got his first real opportunity to play, and in Week 14 versus the Seattle Seahawks, he received a team-high 13 carries and tallied 88 total yards on 17 touches.

• Foster then became the team's go-to back in Weeks 16 and 17, and in those two games he totaled 39 carries for 216 yards and three touchdowns. That performance put him firmly in the Texans' 2010 plans heading into the offseason.

• During the offseason, Texans coach Gary Kubiak hinted that running back would be a priority for the team entering the draft, and sure enough, the team selected Auburn running back Ben Tate in the second round.

• What was a seemingly clouded position battle during training camp cleared up when Tate suffered a fractured right fibula and torn right ankle ligaments during the Aug. 14 preseason opener, ending his season. Foster became the team's No. 1 back.

Foster
Brett Davis/US PresswireArian Foster had room to run against the leaky Colts run defense.

All along the way, Foster drew raves for his practice, OTA and game efforts, and there's no denying he earned his starting job during the past calendar year-plus. It's for that reason he's a perfect example of a (career) sleeper.

If you watched him run in Week 1, Foster showed you both how elusive and explosive he can be; he and his offensive line exposed the holes in the Indianapolis Colts' defensive front as he set a new franchise record for rushing yards (231). He managed six runs of double-digit yards compared with just one "stuff" (zero or negative yards), and wore down the Colts, as evidenced by his amassing 125 of those yards and two touchdowns on 11 carries in the fourth quarter alone.

Naturally, we can't expect performances like this every week from Foster, and to a certain degree his effort is a black mark on the Colts' defense as much as it is a credit to him. But Foster certainly deserves more of the kudos. He cemented his status as a weekly No. 2 running back, the clear starter in what was a clouded backfield the entire 2009 campaign. Plus, he illustrated his vast upside when the matchup is stacked in his favor.

Does this mean it's time to shed Slaton as Foster's handcuff? Not necessarily. After all, this is still a Kubiak team, and the coach has been historically unpredictable in terms of doling out carries. But Foster probably has far more of Kubiak's trust at this point than Slaton ever did last season, and if you're in a shallow league and are desperate for bench spots, it's not an unthinkable strategy.

Things get a little tougher for Foster the next two weeks, when his Texans are at the Washington Redskins and then host the Dallas Cowboys, hence the reason for his "No. 2" status. But there are plenty of stellar matchups on his schedule in the upcoming weeks: Week 6 (versus Kansas City Chiefs), Week 8 (at Colts) and Week 9 (versus San Diego Chargers), just to name three.

Tristan's MVP

Hakeem Nicks
John Munson/US PresswireHakeem Nicks scored three touchdowns Sunday.

It's Foster, clearly, but if you're looking for a second-place vote on your ballot, how about New York Giants wide receiver Hakeem Nicks? He broke out in a major way with a three-touchdown game, topping his position in fantasy points (25), which is saying something against the Carolina Panthers. As we noted on Fantasy Surround a few times Sunday, Hicks' three touchdowns are one shy of the number the Panthers allowed to wide receivers all season in 2009, and not once last year did that defense allow a multiple-touchdown game to the position. That might have led Nicks' owners to doubt the matchup, but if you rolled the dice on him, you were handsomely rewarded.

I laid out the case for Nicks as a potential top-20 wide receiver in our "32 Questions" series this preseason, and this is a strong first step toward that status. However, considering how many owners tend to overestimate fantasy totals generated by multi-touchdown games, be cautious about being too reactionary to the performance. Why? Because fellow receiver Steve Smith still matched Nicks' number of targets (8) and actually exceeded his number of receptions (5-4), while Mario Manningham tallied more receiving yards (85-75). If there's anything to take from the Giants' Week 1 outburst, it's that Eli Manning's emergence as a 4,000-yard, 25-touchdown passer in 2009 might well be legitimate with this many weapons at his disposal. But at the same time, Manning has three reliable receivers to throw to, so don't assume this will always be the Hakeem Nicks show.

Week 1 observations

• Not only did Wes Welker catch the New England Patriots' first pass, but he also scored their first touchdown of the season, finishing the day with eight catches for 64 yards and two scores. It's amazing that people still have doubts about him due to the torn ACL that prematurely ended his 2009 season; nothing about his preseason or his opening-week performance hints he's anything shy of 100 percent.

C.J. Spiller's NFL debut was a lackluster one, as he managed just 6 yards on seven carries and 14 yards on 11 total touches. One bad game shouldn't condemn a promising young talent, but the concerns are that the Buffalo Bills provided him little running room, not to mention Fred Jackson, fresh off a hand injury, totaled 19 yards on six touches. Spiller is a kid you want to root for, but the realist in you should be troubled that Jackson's improving health might soon lead to a near split in carries, and that's not a good thing on a mediocre offensive team.

Matt Forte's day looks good because of the 30 fantasy points, but it was a mix of positives and negatives. The positives: He caught two long touchdown passes, showing some of the speed he seemed to lack all of last season. The negatives: He was stuffed on all four of his goal-line chances, including on three tries in a fourth-quarter drive when Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith inexplicably went for it on fourth down despite trailing by one point. The upshot: Forte's pass-catching ability is one of his most attractive assets and a big reason why you own him, but at the same time, it might lend itself to inconsistency concerns all year.

• Here we go, it's quarterback controversy time in Philadelphia already, except, oh wait, coach Andy Reid told the Philadelphia Inquirer following Week 1 that Kevin Kolb (concussion) will play if cleared. Michael Vick had a standout performance in relief of Kolb, completing 16 of 24 passes for 175 yards and a score while running for 103 yards on 11 carries, looking like the Vick of old. Reid understandably has faith in the quarterback he picked during the offseason, but if you're in a deep league and have interest in stashing a high-upside, later-in-the-year sleeper, Vick might be your man.

• I'm not about to condemn Mike Sims-Walker's fantasy prospects based upon a shutout week -- which tend to get far more noticed this time of year -- but let's also not forget that Sims-Walker can be a terribly inconsistent performer. He drew quite a bit of defensive attention Sunday, particularly from the Denver Broncos' Champ Bailey, but that left Mike Thomas, a preseason standout, open for six catches for 89 yards. Thomas drew raves during the month of August yet flew beneath the fantasy radar in many a shallow league. Count on Thomas being a top waiver pickup this week … because he should be one.

Mike Williams
Jason O. Watson/US PresswireMike Williams was definitely a part of the Seahawks' game plan in Week 1.

• Two Mike Williamses had decent games, and the one with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers might be the one who garners the headlines because he's the one who hauled in a touchdown. But it's the Seahawks' version of Mike Williams who could top waiver-wire pickup lists after he caught four passes on six targets for 64 yards, failing to fill the touchdown column only because he was tackled just shy of the end zone on a 35-yard catch. Both Williamses are worth owning in most fantasy leagues -- think all but the most shallow -- but it's the Seahawk whose team looked quite a bit more potent in the passing department Sunday.

Injury report

For the latest injury updates, check back for Stephania Bell's analysis throughout the week and keep tabs on the Monday news conferences.

Ryan Grant (ankle): He was spotted with his ankle in a boot on the sidelines after leaving midway through the second quarter. Grant finished with eight carries for 45 yards, and if his condition is deemed serious, Brandon Jackson, who managed 63 yards on 18 carries mostly in relief, will be a popular pickup.

Kevin Kolb (concussion): His was one of several injuries to Philadelphia Eagles players -- Stewart Bradley (concussion), Jamaal Jackson (elbow), Jason Peters (knee) and Leonard Weaver (knee) being four others -- and he looked no more impressive before departing than he did in the latter stages of the preseason, completing only 5 of his 10 passes for 24 yards and no scores. Even worse for Kolb: Michael Vick had a standout relief performance, and should be a popular pickup if the Eagles announce any long-term Kolb absence.

Matthew Stafford (shoulder): He departed in the final minute of the second quarter after suffering a right shoulder injury when he was blindsided on a sack by the Bears' Julius Peppers, but don't link that to the shoulder injury that cost him four games in 2009; his injury last season was to his left (nonthrowing) shoulder. Stafford's prognosis was not immediately known, but anyone who owns Lions offensive players has to be rooting for his swift recovery, being that backup Shaun Hill completed only 9 of 19 pass attempts for 88 yards, no touchdowns and one interception, lost a fumble and led his offense to only three first downs, compared with five drives that went three-and-out.

Kevin Boss (neck/concussion): He was knocked out of the game in the opening minutes, exposing the Giants' lack of depth at tight end; Travis Beckum is their only other active tight end. If Boss' injury lingers, expect the team to sign another tight end by midweek, though the likely impact is that Eli Manning will look almost exclusively to his wide receivers.

One play makes your day

Rashard Mendenhall
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesTake out Rashard Mendenhall's game winner and he really didn't have a great day.

It's an obvious pick: Rashard Mendenhall's game-winning, 50-yard touchdown run to seal the Steelers' overtime victory over the Falcons. Before that play, he had 85 total yards and no scores on 23 touches for an eight-point fantasy day and 3.7 yards-per-touch average. With it, he had 19 fantasy points and averaged 5.6 yards per touch. Without closer analysis, Mendenhall's statistics mask the fact that his offensive line rarely provided him running room, and following the loss of left tackle Max Starks (ankle), Mendenhall suffered two stuffs (zero or negative yards) in about 19 minutes of action, compared with two in 44 minutes before Starks got hurt. If Starks joins right tackle Willie Colon (Achilles) on the sidelines for future games, Mendenhall's production will probably suffer. Also, Isaac Redman has been touted as a possible short-yardage and goal-line back, and he converted three of four short-yardage chances into first downs, so brace for the possibility the Steelers ease off on Mendenhall more often in those circumstances looking forward.

Also: Don't get too carried away with Mohamed Massaquoi's 10-point fantasy day, as without a 41-yard touchdown bomb late in the first quarter, the second-year wide receiver would have had a remarkably quiet one-catch, 5-yard, zero-point fantasy game. The kid still has Jake Delhomme throwing him the ball, and Delhomme was just 16-of-30 passing (53.3 percent) after that play.

Wouldacouldashoulda

Effectively the opposite of "One play makes your day," and if you were a close observer of the Week 1 action -- or are a Calvin Johnson owner -- you know exactly the play I'm talking about: Johnson's 25-yard, game-winning touchdown reception -- that wasn't. No matter your opinion on the play, according to the language of the NFL rulebook, the correct call was made: "If a player goes to the ground in the act of catching a pass (with or without contact by an opponent), he must maintain control of the ball after he touches the ground, whether in the field of play or the end zone. If he loses control of the ball, and the ball touches the ground before he regains control, the pass is incomplete. If he regains control prior to the ball touching the ground, the pass is complete." Still, it's certainly frustrating to Johnson's owners to get only a four-catch, 45-yard, four-point fantasy game from him, instead of a 70-yard, one-touchdown, 13-point fantasy effort.

If there was a plus about the Johnson development, it was that he was targeted deep on each of the next two plays, underscoring (for future weeks) how the Lions' offense flows through him, regardless of whom the team has under center.

Now that wasn't part of the game plan!

Jerome Harrison's owners, this columnist included, can't be happy with the multitude of fantasy analysts who touted him as a prime Week 1 start, not after he was dished out the same number of rushing attempts (9) as his backup, Peyton Hillis (9). (Yes, this means I'm unhappy with myself; I was as pro-Harrison as anyone.) With rookie Montario Hardesty out for the season, wasn't Harrison supposed to claim the workhorse-back role and get piles of carries? Apparently not. Hillis got three of the team's first four rushing attempts (Josh Cribbs had the fourth) and was handed the ball the first time the Browns advanced into scoring position, poking home a 10-yard run for a score to put his team up, 14-3.

Still, let's not hop completely off the Harrison bandwagon yet. A few points in his favor: Hillis had fumbled previously during the drive that ended in his touchdown and fumbled a second time later in the game, losing possession in the process, and had only three carries to Harrison's six after his score. In addition, let's not forget the lessons coach Eric Mangini instilled in us in Weeks 13-15 of last season, when he shuffled the bulk of the carries back and forth between Harrison and Chris Jennings like a pingpong ball. Would it be any surprise if Harrison gets 20 carries to Hillis' five in Week 2? Consider Hillis a worthy handcuff pickup if you're a Harrison owner, but I'm not convinced he's much more than a passing-down/change-of-pace back.

Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy football analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.