Browns Address Major Need with Ben Tate Signing, but Can They Rely on Him?

Andrea HangstFeatured Columnist IVMarch 15, 2014

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After being linked to him since the 2013 NFL season, the Cleveland Browns finally landed the running back they've been coveting. The team announced Saturday that it signed former Houston Texans back Ben Tate:

ESPN's Adam Schefter reports that the deal is worth a maximum of $7 million over two years:

While the signing should help improve a Browns run game that ranked 27th in total yards, 23rd in yards per rush and dead last in rushing touchdowns in 2013, the optimism it brings to the team must be tempered with caution.

Injuries marred Tate's four seasons in Houston. First, in 2010, a broken ankle suffered in the preseason sent him to injured reserve, ending his rookie year. Hamstring and foot injuries lingered through the 2011 and 2012 seasons, and Tate's starting job landed with teammate Arian Foster. In 2013, he tried to battle through cracked ribs, but his season ended on injured reserve again.

When healthy, Tate is certainly a talented, productive running back. He has 421 career carries for a total of 1,992 yards and 10 touchdowns. He has a 4.7 yards-per-carry average and ranked eighth in Pro Football Focus' Elusive Rating (subscription required) in 2013, forcing 43 total missed tackles (rushing and receiving) and averaging 2.4 yards after contact per rush, doing so despite his rib injuries.

Ben Tate's Stats, 2013 and Career
Rush Att.Rush Yds.YPCRush TDsTgts.Rec.Rec.Yds.Fum.Fum. Lost
via ESPN

He also proved he can be effective in the passing game. While he's been targeted just 81 times in his career, with 58 receptions totaling 287 yards, he had a career-high number of targets in 2013 with 51. He had 34 receptions last season for 140 yards.

Tate is also familiar with the offensive system that current Browns coordinator Kyle Shanahan will install, as it was Shanahan who created it despite having left the Texans for the Washington Redskins before Tate could ever take the field for Houston. Former Texans head coach Gary Kubiak holds the same offensive philosophy as Shanahan and his father Mike, which means Tate shouldn't have trouble executing the Browns' game plan.

But the Browns cannot assume that Tate will stay healthy through all 16 games this year and plan for him to be their bell-cow running back. The plan may be for Tate to receive the bulk of the carries for the Browns this season, but they would be smart to prepare for a committee approach instead. Tate doesn't appear to be durable in heavy-use situations.

Plus, the Browns have other intriguing running backs currently on the roster who would benefit from getting touches. They include Edwin Baker (who accounted for two of the Browns' four rushing touchdowns in 2013), Dion Lewis (who appeared to be a promising talent before he was shut down for the year after suffering a broken leg in the preseason) and perennial third-down back Chris Ogbonnaya.

The Browns are clearly aware of the talent already present in their stable of backs, as well as their many options at the position in the upcoming draft—Tate's conservative contract reflects this. But because the team had apparently been so enamored with Tate since last year, something that has survived a coaching staff and front-office shakeup, it may want to force him into a true No. 1 running back role. And he may not be suited for it.

If healthy, Tate can certainly lead the team to a better rushing year than in 2013. He knows the system, clearly has the confidence of the powers that be and, despite his injuries, has a great yards-per-carry career average and the ability to break tackles with his 5'11", 220-pound frame.

But that "if healthy" qualifier is a big one. Without it, there's no doubt the Browns have made a strong free-agency signing. But because he carries that stigma with him to Cleveland, there will need to be a Plan B—and a Plan C—in place. The true worth of Tate's presence on the Browns roster won't be determined until after the 2014 season has wrapped.

That's why cautious optimism needs to be the rule of the day when it comes to considering what Tate will bring to the Browns this year.