Can Ben Tate Be a Top Fantasy Running Back in Cleveland?

We'll finally see if Ben Tate is a legitimate NFL starting running back.

It was just a matter of time before we’d see Ben Tate’s name on the Cleveland Browns’ roster. Ever since last year’s early regular season trade of Trent Richardson, Cleveland’s had a gaping hole at running back. And knowing that Tate was the most attractive upcoming free agent runner, analysts naturally associated the ex-Texan with the Browns.

Now, just days after the start of free agency, Tate to Cleveland is a done deal.

Given the obvious lack of competition, it’s almost a certainty that Tate will be the number one guy for the Browns next year. He also should see a high number of carries in the offense, making him instantly relevant to fantasy football.

But what can we expect? Is he a full-blown RB1 given the position’s lack of depth in fantasy, or should we be treating Tate’s new situation with a little more caution?

Tate’s Running Ability

Tate entered the league in 2010, but missed what would have been his rookie year due to an ankle break in the Texans’ preseason opener. The following year, he carried the ball 175 times, complimenting the then fantasy football unicorn, Arian Foster.

That year, Tate’s rushing metrics were solid. He accumulated a 9.58 Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP) total, which ranked third out of the 12 running backs with 150 to 200 carries. His numbers, for reference, were better than DeMarco Murray’s, a guy who saw just nine more touches than Tate in 2011. Even Fred Jackson, who always seems to run the ball effectively, saw a lower Rushing NEP score with similar volume.

Tate only carried the ball 65 times the next season, missing time with injuries to his hamstring and foot. His 4.00 Rushing NEP ranked ninth out of the 20 running backs who had between 50 and 80 carries – though he was hampered by injury, he was still an above average back when relating his numbers to other runners with similar volume.

Things took a bit of a dive last year, but much of his problem had to do with - you guessed it - health (his ribs, specifically). He had an opportunity to really show what he’s capable of given Arian Foster’s season-ending injury, but instead of going nuts, Tate ended the year with a -10.35 Rushing NEP total on 185 carries. While that still ranked sixth when looking at the 13 runners who had between 150 and 200 carries, a lot of that had to do with the lack of true competition at running back in 2013 – the players who saw mid-level volume at the position were generally very bad (Bernard Pierce, Trent Richardson and Lamar Miller, for example).

But overall, I think it’s obvious that there’s potential with Tate in the running game. Though that’ll get you excited from a fantasy perspective, there are still things he’ll need to improve on in order to really make a significant fake football impact next season in Cleveland.

Tate’s Question Marks

If you couldn’t tell from the section above, Ben Tate has some major health concerns.

He’s been in the NFL for four years and missed one entire season, was absent from a game during his sophomore campaign, saw injuries that forced him out of two contests in 2012, and played with broken ribs in 2013.

The man is a walking hospital.

I’m not one to label players injury prone, as I think there’s a lot of misfortune when it comes to guys going down with a battle wound. But we’ve consistently dealt with fragile players in fantasy football in the past, and know the kind of headaches they can bring – Darren McFadden comes to mind almost immediately. And Tate’s bruising style doesn’t necessarily help his cause.

There’s risk because of his health concerns, and we should be cognizant of that when selecting him in what could be the third or fourth round of fantasy drafts next season (that's my ADP guess right now).

Some fantasy owners may not realize, however, that he lacks top-notch ability in the receiving game, too. And in a fantasy football world where top running backs were very active in their team’s passing game, that could be troubling.

Tate has 58 receptions over his three years of actually playing in the NFL, which isn’t bad considering the number of injuries he’s seen and the fact that he’s never been a team’s top runner. He saw his highest receptions total in 2013, too, where he caught 34 balls from Texans’ quarterbacks.

It doesn’t sound all that bad, but of all running backs, no player had a lower Target NEP score in 2013 than Ben Tate. No one. On his 49 targets, Tate lost 12.28 points for the Texans. Some of that had to do with quarterback play, sure, but it wasn’t as though the Texans passing game ranked dead last in the league (they were 30th according to our numbers, in case you were wondering).

And actually, though the sample size is much smaller from 2011 and 2012, Ben Tate has never excelled as a receiver. His career 0.07 Reception Net Expected Points per target average is far below the league's 0.27 average we saw from running backs in 2013. Elite players, for context, will hit the 0.60 mark. So even if he sees more targets in the Browns offense – which could happen considering Fozzy Whittaker and Chris Ogbonnaya combined for 111 of them last year for Cleveland – he more than likely won’t be as productive as a typical running back would.

Tate in 2014

Given the Browns’ lack of rushing weapons, Tate is an obvious upgrade for Cleveland. The only Browns back to see a positive Rushing NEP total last year was third-down guy Chris Ogbonnaya, while grandpa Willis McGahee finished as one of the worst running backs in the entire NFL.

Cleveland’s offensive line isn’t horrific either, and Football Outsiders actually ranked them 18th in the league in run blocking a season ago. Even with their group of bad backs, the Cleveland rushing offense finished with an Adjusted Rushing NEP total of 0.32, good for 17th-best in the NFL.

And I haven’t mentioned it, but Tate's perfect for offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s zone blocking scheme – Tate comes from a similar scheme in Houston.

We should hesitate to get excited though because of his health concerns and mediocre pass-catching skills. The former makes him a draft day risk, while the latter limits his fantasy football ceiling. And because of that, I’ll have a hard time entering the season with the hope that Ben Tate will be an RB1.