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Fantasy Football: Ben Tate, Recency Bias and The Young Shanahan

Rich Hribar looks at what fantasy football owners can expect from the Cleveland Browns’ new starting back Ben Tate.

Ben Tate
Ben Tate

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

In a week that seen Donald Brown and Toby Gerhart get bigger deals, Ben Tate finally ended up in the landing spot many speculated he would be a year ago, inking a two-year deal with the Cleveland Browns. The deal can be worth up to $7 million if Tate can find the field and perform up to par.

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Ever since Tate lit up the combine in 2011, the fantasy community has been clamoring for his freedom from the shadows of Arian Foster. When Foster was lost for the remainder of 2013 and that wish was granted, Tate left those waiting with an unfulfilled feeling similar to seeing a movie that was hyped up beyond expectations.

In his seven starts, Tate posted only three top 24 weeks, had only one 100-yard rushing game and scored all three of his touchdowns in one game. Caught in the turmoil of the burning garbage pile known as the Houston offense, he averaged less than four yards per carry in four of those starts. He played the majority of those games with broken ribs before mercifully being placed on injured reserve for the final two weeks of the season.

Cleveland, Where Running Has Been Optional

Don’t get me wrong, the Browns would’ve probably liked to run the football somewhat over the past four years. But when you only win 18 games in a four year window, there’s not much room to grind away victories.

Since 2010, Cleveland has the third fewest rushing attempts in the NFL at 1,571, just ahead of Dallas and Arizona. They also posted the second fewest amount of rushing touchdowns at 33 (the Rams have 31). Over those four seasons, the Browns have had four different offensive coordinators (if we’re counting Pat Shurmur for double duty in 2011).

That timeframe is important, because new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan spent those four years calling plays in Washington after two years in Houston. During the same stretch, Washington only managed 24 wins, but were 18th in the NFL in carries (1,721) and ran for 55 touchdowns, which holds up for the ninth most in the league.

Last season, Cleveland threw the ball a league-leading 70 percent of offensive plays, including 65 percent of the time with the lead (also first). Washington was also pass heavy at 63 percent of their offensive plays (11th), but that’s mostly because they were terrible. They only threw 48 percent of the time (25th) while holding a lead. Balance is important, but in the NFL today, teams don’t win because they run, they run because they’re winning.

Young Shanahan, Old Habits

Shanahan will be bringing the zone blocking scheme passed down from his father, something Tate is well acclimated to from his time spent with another Mike Shanahan disciple, Gary Kubiak. Not only will Kyle increase the rushing volume as a whole, but he has also preferred to lean on one runner if possible.

Year

TM

RB ATT

RB1 ATT

%

RB TD

RB1 TD

RB REC

2008

HOU

385

268

69.6

14

9

76

2009

HOU

365

131

35.9

13

3

101

2010

WAS

311

164

52.7

9

4

86

2011

WAS

362

151

41.7

5

2

90

2012

WAS

374

335

89.6

15

13

41

2013

WAS

352

276

78.4

14

7

45

 

When he’s had the same running back for 16 games, they’ve all been at 70 percent of the running back attempts or higher. The only seasons of really down usage were in injury filled seasons. In 2009, the Texans went from Steve Slaton (131 carries) to Ryan Moats (101) to Chris Brown (79) to then teasing what would be the future, Foster (54).

In 2010 and 2011, Washington chewed through running backs from Tim Hightower to Kerwin Williams to Ryan Torain. Once they had Alfred Morris in place, he accounted for over 80 percent of the carries, despite what many assumed was a committee was last year. If there’s a lead back in place that can stay on the field, Shanahan will lean on him.

That’s been a bugaboo for Tate up until this point. He’s missed seven games over his three year career with a smattering of injuries. He also has a pretty big fumbling issue, putting 10 of his 479 career touches on the ground. He had the highest percentage of carries fumbled in 2013 (2.8 percent) of all backs with 100 plus carries, fumbling five of 181 attempts.

Looking back at the chart above, Shanahan’s system has also been very friendly to backs out of the backfield. The recent drop over the past two seasons is only because Washington relied on Morris, who never had more than 11 receptions in any season of college, to play so many snaps. Tate doesn’t have an issue there, because he can play in the passing game. Even in the disaster in Houston, he grabbed 34 balls. Even if Dion Lewis or Chris Ogbonnaya get involved on passing downs, Tate should be a sho0-in for 30 receptions, if not more.

Apparently He Stinks Now

Tate still has better physical tools than either Brown or Gerhart have; now he’ll have even more opportunity. Never playing in half of his team’s offensive snaps, even a low end projection paints him as low RB2. Let’s assume that Cleveland only has 320 attempts this season, well below the norm with young Shanny. With only 60 percent of all those Cleveland carries, a pedestrian Tate would be looking at a 192 attempt, 806 yard season. If he can return to maximizing his ability, he could turn into a fringe RB1 if he remains on the field, much like Morris was over the past two seasons, only Tate can catch passes.

Many owners will discount him based on his involvement in a terrible offense and his own injury liability to this point. Pointing to the back half of 2013 as the type of back he really is while throwing out all of the reasoning why many loved his prospects in the first place. Even if he is that mediocre back, there’s still good to be had with volume, and there’s no reason with the current landscape of the position that he can’t make an impact on your fantasy roster in the middle rounds. For those going receiver heavy early on, Tate could be a solid option.

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