Every NFL season there are always a few open positions up for grabs and the 2010 season is certainly no different. As training camps get underway, there are several teams with position battles that will have a major impact on the landscape of fantasy football. One such team is the Houston Texans, with a running back situation that may not be as clear cut as many suspect. So, we thought we would take a closer look at this high-profile RB battle and the 3 worthy competitors involved.
Players: Arian Foster vs. Ben Tate vs. Steve Slaton
Why Arian Foster wins the spot: Technically, it’s his job to lose at this point, considering he will open training camp #1 on the Texans RB depth chart. A position Foster not only lucked into to some degree, but earned while filling in late last season for the injured Steve Slaton and the ineffective Ryan Moats (now with Minnesota). In his short stint as the Texans feature back in 2009, Foster yielded outstanding results, totaling an impressive 257 yards on just 54 carries (4.8 yards per carry) while adding 3 rushing TDs. Not too shabby for an undrafted RB that began the 2009 season 4th on the Texans depth chart competing for time on the practice squad. He further impressed the Houston coaching staff this off season with outstanding OTA and mini camp results where Foster displayed a strong grasp of the Texans offense. He has also shown the ability to be solid as both a receiver out of the backfield and as a blocker in pass protection.
Furthermore, Foster is a much better player than given credit. He was actually a highly decorated player in college. He ranks 2nd on the University of Tennessee’s all-time leading rusher list which is impressive when you consider some of the top flight RBs the Vols have produced over the years. He was also named to the Freshman All-American team and All-SEC teams.
Why Arian Foster won't win the spot: There is no question that Foster was indeed impressive in his late season run as the Texans lead back in 2009. He has also earned tons of praise for his outstanding off-season performance and work ethic. Still, it is difficult to imagine that the Texan’s brass truly believe Foster is their man for the long haul. Sure, Steve Slaton’s return in 2010 was questionable with the neck injury, but to take a RB (Ben Tate) in the 2nd round of the NFL draft does not exactly bode well in the level of confidence the coaching staff had in either Foster or Slaton; at least not at the time of the draft anyways.
Bottom line, a team does not take a RB that early in the draft unless they have big plans for him, especially a back with as much potential and talent as Tate. Also, one of the biggest knocks on Foster coming out of college was his ability to hold onto the ball or lack there of, particularly near the goal line and in crucial game situations. This may or may not be a problem of the past as Foster really wasn’t on the field enough in 2009 to make a conclusive judgment, but it remains an issue of concern.
Why Ben Tate wins the spot: Tate was an outstanding college RB at Auburn rushing for nearly 1,400 yards and 10 TDs in his senior season with the Tigers. While those may not seem like monster numbers for the college game, they are almost unheard of for a RB playing in a pass dominated spread offense, and impressive enough for him to be named a semi finalist for the Doak Walker award as well as garnering him All SEC honors.
Tate demonstrates an amazing blend of size, speed and power that look be a perfect fit for the Texans run and gun offense. More importantly, Houston had to trade up to the second round in this year’s NFL draft in order to pick Tate. It is highly unlikely that Gary Kubiak and the Texans' powers that be went out of their way to get a quality running back in round 2 just to have him sit on the bench behind a former undrafted free agent (Foster) and a player with potentially serious injury issues (Slaton) and both of which have a propensity for fumbling in key situations. Talent, potential and the player getting the biggest pay check are usually the biggest factors that go into determining playing time. Ultimately, Ben Tate best fits all of the aforementioned criteria to win the job.
Why Ben Tate will not win the spot: The biggest problem Tate has is that he missed the majority of the Texans OTA’s and mini camps this summer with a hamstring injury. This isn't a good thing for a rookie vying for a starting spot against two NFL proven running backs. Incumbent Arian Foster proved to be outstanding in off season workouts as Tate could only watch from the sidelines.
It’s safe to say that Tate will have plenty of catching up to do in training camp and he must outshine both Foster and Slaton with outstanding, mistake free football in pre-season if he has any hope of being named the starter come week 1. That said, it is difficult for any rookie to come into the NFL and make an immediate splash, much less a rookie that has just over a month to master his team’s playbook, schemes and ideology. Even with Tate’s vast potential, it may prove to be more difficult than many experts think to unseed Foster and Slaton, especially early in the 2010 season.
Why Steve Slaton wins the spot: Slaton has already proven that he is capable of getting the job done as the Texans lead back. Coming out of West Virginia as one of the more highly touted RBs in college football, the former 3rd round pick easily lived up to his billing in his rookie season rushing for 1,282 yards and 9 TDs while adding 377 receiving yards and a TD on 50 receptions.
In spite of Slaton’s sophomore slump in 2009 and a near career ending neck injury, some believe his mix of experience and past proven talent make him the man to beat. He has been medically cleared to play and is the most decorated of the three challengers. In addition, he knows the Texans offensive system as well as anyone, which should give him a leg up.
Why Steve Slaton will not win the spot: After suffering a near career ending neck injury last season, Slaton is sure to be a little gun shy about taking hits and he is still a bit of a liability despite receiving medical clearance to play in 2010. The fact that Slaton ran with the 2nd string offense during OTA’s behind Arian Foster is also a major clue that Slaton will not be the starting RB for the Texans this season.
Slaton was not in peak form even when healthy in 2009. For as well as he played in 2008, Slaton’s 2009 season was equally disappointing. In fact, several lackluster performances to begin the 2009 season ultimately led to Slaton losing his feature role in favor of Ryan Moats last season. There is little doubt that Slaton will be on the field in 2010, most likely on passing downs, but his days as a top tier feature back are probably over.
FINAL ANALYSIS: All three of these talented running backs can make a case for playing time in 2010 and all three backs probably deserve and will get playing time. The question is, who will get the most playing time and yield the best results for fantasy football owners? We can say with some degree of confidence that it probably won’t be Steve Slaton, barring injury to Foster and Tate. So, that really makes it a two horse race between Foster and Tate.
We believe it will be difficult for Tate to steal the job outright from Foster, at least in the early stages of the season and Foster should not be underestimated as a serious threat to maintain a feature role throughout 2010 if he can make the most of his current situation. That said, the most likely scenario as that we will see more and more of Tate and less and less of Foster as the season progresses. Reason being, the Texans have way more invested in Tate than they do in Foster and all indications are that Tate will be the Texans feature back for the long term future.
Tate has the most upside of the three running backs from a fantasy standpoint and for that reason he is your best bet in fantasy drafts, but if you are expecting monster numbers from any of these guys; you may just be disappointed in the end. Tate will almost have to win the job outright by midseason at the latest (which is questionable) and even then it will be quite difficult for him to meet his lofty expectations. There is also the possibility of an even three man split rotation. That’s right, the dreaded three-headed monster which has never paid big dividends for fantasy owners.
Only time will tell, but you would be gambling by going after any of these guys in the early rounds of your fantasy draft. Your best bet is to buy low on Foster or even avoid the situation entirely until something is set in stone with this backfield which will hopefully happen by the time your fantasy draft rolls around. Also, if you can get Tate at an obvious bargain, by all means do so, but that is unlikely given the hype surrounding him.
As for the dynasty leaguers, Tate looks like the real deal in terms of the long term future and he may in fact turn out to be fantasy football’s next big thing, but under the current circumstances, you would also be wise not to bet the farm on him just yet. If you are afforded the luxury, a wait and see approach is not a bad idea.