Benjamin of the Thunder-Foot: Ben Tate as the New Viking Hero?

He rules with an iron fist, lead hands, and boots made of thunder. Can Ben Tate revive this lagging Vikings' backfield?

Some of the wisest words I’ve ever heard about fantasy football come from a very, very old text, one that has stories of redemption, sacrifice, justice, and even some elements of the supernatural. I’m speaking – of course – about The Saga of Burnt Njal, a Norse saga, which states, “Where fault can be found, the good is ignored.” What this essentially suggests is that when examining a situation, both total pessimism and blind optimism are foolish; everything must be weighed carefully.

From what I can tell, Burnt Njal was also really savvy on the waiver wire.

Why do I lead today’s article off with a Norse proverb? On Tuesday, the Cleveland Browns waived competent-at-least running back Ben Tate, and yesterday we found out that the Minnesota Vikings had claimed him. In any other year, we’d say this didn’t matter at all, but there may be a chance for Tate to prove his worth both in the remainder of 2014 and even for 2015. Will Tate thrive in the North, or will his fantasy value be the victim of a Viking waiver raid?

Unrest in the North

It’s been an eventful week in my neck of the woods. Not only was Tate claimed by the Vikings, it’s likely this move was made due to the NFL’s announcement that veteran running back Adrian Peterson would be suspended for the remainder of the 2014 season. Add in the fact that current lead back Matt Asiata has a 2.09 yard per carry average over the last five games, and bell cow-of-the-future Jerick McKinnon has shown explosive potential but isn’t yet a complete back, and you have total backfield anarchy.

Enter Ben Tate. It’s not likely this former Brown and Texan will be the one to save either the Vikings’ NFL season or your fantasy season, but could he be useful to either down the stretch? To find out, we’ll examine his situation and likely prospects through the lens of our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric. NEP is a way of measuring not just a player’s box score contributions, but also their underlying production that actually advances their team toward scoring points. You can read more about NEP in our glossary.

How unclear is the situation in Minnesota, and does Tate have a chance to step in and take the reins? The table below shows each Minnesota halfback’s production in 2014 by our NEP metrics.

PlayerRush NEPRush NEP/AttRec NEP NEPTarget NEPRec NEP/Target NEP
Adrian Peterson-4.38-
Jerick McKinnon0.050.002.24-11.550.06
Matt Asiata-0.290.0010.16-8.05 0.25

Nobody in this Vikings stable of running backs has been highly effective in all phases this year, excepting McKinnon, who has at least been fairly average on the ground. Peterson had seen some value in the passing game before his suspension, but he was completely atrocious on a per-attempt Rushing NEP (NEP gained solely on rushing plays) basis. Asiata has been somewhat mediocre on the ground, too, but his numbers seem to be buoyed by a few lucky touchdowns. He is not the complete back that everyone wants, however: with an 18.21 point difference between his Reception NEP (NEP gained on all plays with a successful reception) and Target NEP (NEP gained on all plays on which the player was targeted), he looks to be one of the most unreliable and volume-based “receiving backs” in the league.

Can Tate turn this group around, or are they doomed to be covered by the snowdrifts that are the rest of the NFC North?

The Future King?

How will Tate measure up against his new teammates’? The table below shows Tate’s NEP production data as a comparison to the current Vikings’ backfield.

PlayerRush NEPRush NEP/AttRec NEP NEPTarget NEPRec NEP/Target NEP
Ben Tate-11.31-0.11-0.45-7.05-0.04

Shockingly, Tate appears worse than every other option the Vikings currently have available to them. Even the plodding Asiata has been able to make more out of each run, with a per-attempt Rushing NEP of 0.11 points higher than the supposedly dynamic Tate. While decidedly less awful of a target option than each of the three (better Target NEP), Tate still seems quite lackluster for someone a team might hand over the keys to the rushing game to.

But what if we look at Tate’s past production and try to suss out if he might turn this around? The table below shows his career production in these same NEP categories.

YearTeamRush NEPRush NEP/AttRec NEP NEPTarget NEPRec NEP/Target NEP

It’s clear to see that Tate has never been a prolific receiving back. He is a two-down lead guy, through and through, and that’s not just by usage; it’s by design. However, this history does seem to hold some hope that Tate isn’t completely washed up. For instance, by many metrics, the Browns’ run blocking graded at a rank just outside the top-ten in the league, whereas the Minnesota offensive line ranks a solid eighth in run support. The last time Tate had a top-ten ranked offensive line was in 2011, when he had his best production in NEP in his career.

This season, Tate received just 115 touches, despite supposedly being the “lead back” in Cleveland. Prorating him for this pace at 16 games, this would actually have still been the second-lowest touch total of his career, even though the Browns have one of the top teams in rushing percentage of plays called. As he was splitting touches with not just one other back (like when he was in Houston, with Arian Foster) but two, Tate may never have had a chance to get into a rhythm in the run game. The lead back in Cleveland’s game plans changed weekly as well between Tate, Terrance West, and Isaiah Crowell, further supporting this idea that if he got more well-defined touches, he might thrive.

Winter Is Coming

In Minnesota, I think Tate actually falls into a similar situation to the one he left in Cleveland. With two backs on the roster who are homegrown products, the Vikings have more invested in them than Tate, who is a basically free gamble. Tate has a few edges, though, if he can maximize them. The first is that, while McKinnon is clearly more physically gifted, Tate has an experience edge that McKinnon’s raw skills do not carry. Tate is also significantly more talented than Asiata, which should bump this short-yardage back to the end of the depth chart.

In addition, there are loud, loud rumblings out of the Minnesota front office that Adrian Peterson could be released in the offseason after serving his suspension. Cutting the former star would result in $13 million of cap space being freed up for the Vikings to use. On a team that has overpaid some big stars (i.e. Greg Jennings) in recent years, this would be a financial lifesaver. With Peterson out of the way for 2015, Tate could be a sneakily successful fantasy back. What about McKinnon’s emergence next year, you ask? Tate thrived in a backup role to Arian Foster in Houston. The Vikings run the ball enough for volume and have a better line than those Texans had. Tate’s thundering style is a perfect complement to McKinnon’s electric speed for the 2015 Vikings backfield.

While he won’t be the heir apparent to the throne, Tate could be a solid and productive “Protector of the Realm” until Prince Jerick McKinnon is ready to ascend the depth chart in Minnesota.