If you were to take a poll of NFL fans regarding who the “best” running back in the league was most would probably say Adrian Peterson without batting an eye. However, in the last two seasons both Arian Foster and Ray Rice have rushed for more yards, caught more passes, played in more games, and have more total yards from scrimmage than Peterson and that really shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone given the sudden drop off that most running backs face heading into their late 20′s. Adrian Peterson is still a work horse of a back, but he’s missed 5 games in the last two seasons and for a 220lb running back you have to wonder how his body is going to respond at the “ripe” age of 27 (in running back years, 27-28 years old is where you can historically start to see a decline in a lot of running backs). These reasons are why most educated fans would tell you that Arian Foster and Ray Rice are the two top running backs in the league right now with Matt Forte right behind them.
The problem that the Baltimore Ravens currently find themselves in is determining what exactly Ray Rice is worth. The Minnesota Vikings signed Adrian Peterson to a 7 year, $100 million contract last September that would pay him roughly $36 million in guaranteed money. So, did the Vikings really set the bar for what top backs are to be paid? Or did they pull a Dan Snyder and sign a star player to a ridiculous contract that far exceeds the total worth of the player and the position? A contract like that can truly jeopardize future salary cap requirements and the Vikings may have to face a harsh truth that he’s not worth that kind of contract and no running back really is because most backs rarely maintain a high level of production into their 30′s. It just rarely happens. Ray Rice fits into this dilemma because his agent has stated that Rice wants a contract similar to what Peterson got and knowing what we know about the shelf life of a running back there is just no way that the Ravens can fully justify paying a running back an average of nearly $14 million per season when they’re trying to field an entire team and have big contracts looming on the horizon for Joe Flacco and Lardarius Webb.
Enter Arian Foster…
Foster has been one of the most consistent and dynamic backs over the course of the last two seasons and has combined for over 4,000 yards from scrimmage, over 700 touches [rushes & receptions], and 30 total touchdowns amassing 180 points [ 210 if you include extra points]. His production over the last two season is a major reason for the recent success of the Houston Texans and it was clear that Foster, now 25 years old, was a significant part of the Texans’ offense and their projected success. Even when their starting quarterback, Matt Schaub, went down in week 10 and they had to rely on a rookie QB, TJ Yates, they were still able to maintain success due to Foster and the ground game. Even in the playoffs against Baltimore’s stout defense, Foster still rattled off 132 yards on the ground and brought the Texans within a lone TD of tying the game up. Both Foster and Ray Rice were free agents heading into this off-season and both were waiting with anticipation to see what the other would do. The reason why Arian Foster’s contract is so important is because his contract (not Adrian Peterson’s) would set the legitimate bar for what top rated running backs entering their prime should be getting. During the first week in March Foster signed a 5 year contract totalling $43.5 million with $20.75 million in guaranteed money; a far cry from Peterson’s $100 million over 7 years.
Most Ravens’ fans will claim that Rice is the better and more complete back and they’d certainly have an argument in that stance. As a Ravens fan I know that I would have a difficult time picking between the two in a backyard football game because both bring a tremendous amount of talent to the team, both are team-first guys, and both have multiple years of consistent production. The only nod I would really give to Rice over Foster is durability and conversely the only nod I would give to Foster over Rice is Foster has that extra gear in open space that Rice doesn’t have.
Just comparing the numbers over the last two seasons [2010 & 2011]:
Baltimore’s offensive production – 2,054 plays| 10,585 total yards| 735 total points.
Rice’s total offensive contribution (32 regular season games) –
737 total contributing plays [rushes + receptions]| 3,842 total yards| 147 total points [21 total TD's].
Value to offense – 35.8% of total plays| 36.3% of total yards| 20% of total offensive points.
Houston’s offensive production – 2,075 plays| 12,140 total yards| 771 total points.
Foster’s total offensive contribution (26 regular season games) –
724 total contributing plays [rushes + receptions]| 4,061 total yards| 180 total points [30 total TD's].
Value to offense – 34.89% of total plays| 33.5% of total yards| 23.4% of total offensive points.
If we were to break it down even further we would see that Rice accounted for 19% of the receiving yards, 63% of the rushes, 67% of the rushing yards, 65% of the rushing TD’s, and 9% of the passing TD’s. Essentially, Ray Rice is 1/3 of the entire offensive production over the past two seasons. When we look at Foster we find that he accounted for 63% of the rushes, 16% of the passing yards, 63% of the rushing yards, 68% of the rushing TD’s, and 9% of the passing TD’s. While Rice has the edge on the ratio of rushing yardage and receiving yards, Foster has more points scored, more rushing yards, and more total yards from scrimmage in 6 less games than Rice. It’s fair to say that if Foster had played or received significant snaps in those 6 games he’d be substantially farther ahead than Rice.
At the end of the day, both Rice and Foster are vital parts of their offensive successes over the last two seasons, but Foster’s contract is indicative of what a team should pay for a top tiered back heading into their prime because of his production over the last two seasons. If Rice’s agent continues to snub the Ravens who have (according to sources) offered him the same deal that Arian Foster got, then we could very well be seeing the last year of Ray Rice as the Ravens’ primary running back. It’s a shame, but that is the nature of the business. The Ravens front office will be smart about it and do not be surprised at all to see an early draft pick this April spent on a running back. It’s not that they don’t want Rice, they do, but they are not going to jeopardize losing Joe Flacco and Lardarius Webb over Ray Rice.