NFL seasons, despite being only 16 games, are long endeavors. With every passing week, an NFL team changes remarkably. Just halfway into a season, a team’s roster, expectations, and fan support have likely shrunk or swelled depending on results.
Given that the NFL is such a dynamic league, it is understandable that 2010 rookie Ben Tate is largely forgotten, even by diehard Houston Texans fans. After the Auburn product broke his ankle in the first preseason game he was immediately placed on the injured reserve and never heard from again that season.
And what a season it was to be for the Texans. Some undrafted free agent running back who had spent most of the previous season on the practice squad named Arian Foster emerged as not only the starter but also the eventual league rushing champion.
So now that Foster is considered one of the NFL’s best running backs and a perfect fit for the zone running system, what does that mean for Ben Tate now that he is presumably healthy?
Offensive coordinator Rick Dennison made it clear that the starting tailback position belongs to Foster alone. When addressing Tate’s position in the Texans backfield, he had this to say:
“We’re going to give him the ball a few times and see how he does,” Dennison said. “We’re looking at it as he ended up with a redshirt year. He still has the ability that we liked to get him in the second round. We’ll take some turns. Obviously, Arian’s our number one guy, and then we’ll go from there.”
It should also be noted that Derrick Ward, who emerged last season as the primary third-down back to spell Foster, was unexpectedly re-signed just prior to the end of the league year on March 4th. This move came after Tate was medically cleared in February.
At first glance, all these bits of news combined don’t bode well for Tate. Just a year ago he was a fantasy darling because the Texans finally had a competent back to replace the ailing Steve Slaton. Now it appears he might be third on the depth chart.
I would caution anyone subscribing to this thinking though. As Dennison pointed out, Tate was drafted in the second round of the draft. This represents a large investment, especially for the Texans, who had previously never drafted a running back prior to the third round.
Not only did they set the aforementioned benchmark for the franchise, but they traded up for Tate, meaning that they saw very good value after trading down from their original second-round slot.
Tate may not have been worth the pick for every NFL team, but the Texans considered him a perfect fit for their zone running scheme. Tate showed surprising speed at the 2010 NFL Combine when he ran a 4.34 40-yard dash.
This straight-line speed didn’t come with a lot of lateral agility to make defenders miss, but that’s not what the Texans want from backs. They prefer their backs to read the blocks, and once a decision is made to stick a foot in the ground and hit the hole. It was this very skill that made Foster so successful last season.
So presuming that Tate possesses the same physical attributes that got him drafted 58th overall, the Texans have a physically talented back with full year of exposure to the NFL, albeit from the sidelines. Watching both film and how professionals approach the game constitutes the redshirt year that Dennison spoke of.
The notion that Tate will have to compete with Ward is probably not true. Ward was more than serviceable last season, but he will be 31 this season. Also, his 6.3 yards per carry was fantastic, but it was more a testament to the offensive line and Foster softening defenses than anything spectacular that Ward did.
While I don’t have concrete proof to back it up, I believe that Ward’s statistics are misleading. Foster would tire from the numerous touches he got, and it always seemed as if Ward was brought in when Foster would be needed the most. Sometimes Ward would produce, but there was an obvious drop-off from Foster.
Tate possesses the same tools that made Ward successful last year, but with more power and speed. After all, Tate is a full eight years younger at a position where age really matters. Ward's re-signing notwithstanding, Tate is number two on the depth chart.
What will the workload share be like, though? Last season Steve Slaton and Derrick Ward combined for 69 carries while Foster tallied 327, not to mention the 66 receptions. The track record for backs with 400-plus touches in a season staying healthy is not very good, especially if the workload is repeated.
I truly believe that one way or another, Tate will have more than 69 rushing attempts in 2011. Either Gary Kubiak and Dennison will wisely use Tate to spell Foster more, or they will stubbornly insist on placing the same emphasis of the offense on Foster and two seasons of overwork will take its toll.
I think that Kubiak and Dennison used Foster to the extent they did in 2010 because they knew the alternatives represented a huge disparity in talent. While Tate has not shown to be near the back that Foster has, he is much closer in ability and therefore the offensive brain trust will feel more comfortable giving Tate a larger piece of the pie.
All this is to say that I will be shocked if Tate doesn’t have more than 100 carries next season, and a decent amount of receptions that come with being a third-down back. One of the attributes that Tate possessed which allowed his high draft position was his ability to pass protect and underrated receiving skills.
Does this mean that Foster’s production will decrease from the 1,600-yard benchmark he set for himself? Probably, but I think that would happen whether Tate gets a larger percentage of work or not.
If it was up to me, I would rather have both backs with good production than one with great production if it puts him at risk for injury. After all, individual stats don’t matter, only team ones.
What do you think, though? Let me know either in the comments or on twitter (@JakeBRB).