Is Arian Foster a Lock to Make the Dolphins’ Roster?

Aug 4, 2016; Miami Gardens, FL, USA; Miami Dolphins head coach Adam Gase (left) talks with Dolphins running back Arian Foster (right) during practice drills at Baptist Health Training Facility. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
Aug 4, 2016; Miami Gardens, FL, USA; Miami Dolphins head coach Adam Gase (left) talks with Dolphins running back Arian Foster (right) during practice drills at Baptist Health Training Facility. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports /

While the addition of Arian Foster to the Miami Dolphins roster was met with tremendous fanfare, his exit may come much sooner than expected thanks to the surprising play of Isaiah Pead.

The Miami Dolphins currently have six viable backs in training camp battling it out for four spots on the team’s final 53-man roster. There is Jay Ajayi, who appears to be the starter, as well as Kenyan Drake, the Dolphins’ third round draft pick, who is currently sidelined with a hamstring issue. Damien Williams, a third year player and solid all-around back, is also in the mix, along with Daniel Thomas, the biggest longshot of the bunch.

Then there is Arian Foster, by far the most accomplished of the group. Since coming into the league in 2009, Foster has rushed for over 1,200 yards four times, and subsequently, been named to the Pro Bowl on each occasion. Additionally, he has proven himself a serious pass catching threat out of the backfield, with 2,268 receiving yards. And yet, despite it all, Foster’s spot on the Dolphins roster could be in jeopardy thanks to the unlikely emergence of Isaiah Pead.

“Every time he gets in the game he seems to pop one,” said Gase, describing Pead’s contributions during the Dolphins first two preseason games via the team’s official website. “I’ve been very impressed with him. He’s really tried to do every little thing right. He’s been one of those guys, he’s always in the right place at the right time, whether it’s on the field or off the field for us. He had another explosive play today. It just seems like when he gets in there, whether in run game or pass game, he seems to make something happen.”

“Every time he gets in the game he seems to pop one,”

Gase has a point. Thus far in the preseason, Pead has been the most impressive back on the roster, racking up 14 carries for 98 yards, including runs of 45 and 26 yards, as well as 2 receptions for 27 yards.

Even so, Pead is far from satisfied with his performance.

"“I should have taken it farther,” said Pead, explaining his 45 yard run against the Cowboys to Adam Beasley of the Miami Herald. “Should have scored. It was an outside run. The line blocked it up perfectly and left me some running lanes. After that, it was up to me to pick a hole and hit it, and then don’t stop.”"

In contrast, Foster, who, to this point in preseason, has been considered a lock to make the team, has just two carries for -5 yards. Worst still, while Foster has looked good in practice drills, he appeared slow and indecisive in his short time on the field against Dallas. Could his in-game performance be explained by rust? Possibly. After all, one drive is an exceedingly small sample size upon which to judge. Nevertheless, there are additional reasons for concern.

As I pointed out in a recent post, Adam Gase’s 12 Steps to Rehabilitating the Dolphins: Step 3, Foster’s productivity as a runner has dropped a whopping 42.5% since 2012.

Avg Rush AttsAvg YdsAvg Per CarryAvg TDs

His production as a receiver has taken a significant hit as well, dipping 35.8% over that same period.

Avg RecsAvg YdsAvg Per RecAvg TDs

The reason for this decline in productivity has been Foster’s health. Never the most durable of backs, from 2009 through 2012, Foster played in 43 of 64 games, or 67% of games. Yet, from 2013 on, he has been a part-time player at best, missing 23 of 48 games. That means he has been available to play just 53% of the time over that span.

Still, that may not be the worst of it. In 2015, Foster averaged a mere 2.6 yards a carry, marking the first time in his career that he has averaged less than 4 yards per run. That number alone is enough to make coaches question if Foster is even a shadow of his former self at this point.

Now, that isn’t to say that Pead is guaranteed to beat out Foster either. After all, his resume is far less impressive. Despite being the 50th overall pick in the 2012 draft, he has started just one game in the NFL and totaled a lowly 78 yards on 19 carries and 94 yards on 14 receptions. Worst still, he too has suffered his share of injuries, including an ACL. As a result, Pead has missed 21 of 48 games over the last three seasons, nearly as many as Foster.

So, how will this unexpected running back battle be decided? Well, the answer could come down to money. Both men are essentially signed to one year “Show Me” contracts. Foster’s deal is for $1.5 million, with $400,000 in guaranteed money. Additionally, his contract has been reported to include incentives that could tack on as much as another $2 million. As such, if Miami decides to part ways with him, they will be out a relatively small amount. In contrast, Pead’s deal is much simpler, just $675,000 with no guaranteed money. If he gets cut, Miami doesn’t suffer a cap hit.

Looking at things objectively, each player has advantages over the other. Foster has a more proven track record and, given his vast experience, would be the superior guiding force and mentor in the locker room. Pead is cheaper, and at 26 years of age, 3 years younger than Foster. More important still, at least to this point, he has vastly outperformed the former Pro Bowler.

A lot could be riding on how each does in the final two preseason games. Injuries could, of course, play a factor. Still, if all goes as it has thus far, it is difficult to imagine Miami ridding itself of Ajayi, Drake, or even Williams, thus, setting up a showdown between the decorated veteran in Foster and the unheralded camp body in Pead.

There are a couple of possibilities in which both players could make the team. The first and simplest of the two, the Dolphins cut Damien Williams, who is in the final year of his contract, but that seems unlikely. The other, and far more probable option, is to place the injured Kenyan Drake on short-term injured reserve, which would permit the Dolphins to keep him out for half of the season. This would give Gase time to further evaluate and compare Foster and Pead. Nevertheless, that would simply postpone the outcome to a running back clash no one saw coming.