Why Ben Tate Is the Best Starting RB Option Available This Offseason

Ty Schalter@tyschalterNFL National Lead WriterFebruary 19, 2014

HOUSTON, TX - DECEMBER 01:  Ben Tate #44 of the Houston Texans celebrates afte scoring on a 7 yard run in the first quarter against the New England Patriots at Reliant Stadium on December 1, 2013 in Houston, Texas.  (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
Bob Levey/Getty Images

Does your favorite team need a running back?

I've got just the draft prospect for you. He's got ideal NFL size at 5'11", 217 pounds and can run the 40-yard dash in 4.34 seconds, per NFLCombineResults.com. He comes out of a traditional power program (Auburn) and has produced against the very highest levels of competition. The only downside is that at 25, he's a little old for this rookie class.

Oh, and he's not really a draft prospect. He's Ben Tate, one of the least talked-about premier players in the 2014 free-agent class.

The recent trend of NFL teams drafting middle-round rookies to step in and start at tailback isn't slowing down, for many reasons. The cheap salary of mid-round rookies, the relatively short career span of running backs and the easy college-to-pro transition make tailback a great spot to get away with an untested young back.

However, Tate has the all-around package of size, power and speed that this year's draft class lacks. For a contending team that needs to reload at tailback, the timing is perfect for Tate to step out of Adrian Foster's shadow and into the spotlight.


The Numbers

Tate's 2013 production stacks up well against his fellow top backs. Here are a few of Tate's stats measured up against the top 32 rushing-yardage backs in 2013 (Tate is one of them, so the comparison group is the other 31), per Pro-Football-Reference:

Ty Schalter/Bleacher Report

Tate averaged 4.3 yards per carry in 2013, in line with his career average of 4.7. This is over and above the 4.1 yards per carry the field averaged and closer to DeMarco Murray's high of 5.2 than Trent Richardson's low of 3.0. The upshot of this: Ben Tate ran like a better-than-average starter.

Tate, despite playing second fiddle to the oft-injured Arian Foster, still got the rock an average of 12.9 times per game in 2013. This is just below the 15.0 average of the remaining 31 top tailbacks. However, it's not much more than Joique Bell's 10.4 attempts per game, the field's low mark. Adrian Peterson got the highest diet of carries, averaging 19.9 per game.

For a power back, Tate didn't get a lot of touchdown opportunities; this had more to do with the imploding Houston Texans offense than Tate's ability.


The Scouting Report

Tate, taken 58th overall by the Texans in the second round of the 2010 draft, was Bleacher Report NFL Draft Lead Writer Matt Miller's 27th-ranked running back after the 2012 season—by far, Tate's least-productive season.

Of course, Miller spoke highly of Tate's power.

"Ben Tate has the size, strength and leg drive to push through tacklers and punish the defense," Miller said. He's anything but a plodder, though, as that 40-yard-dash time proves.

"Tate has enough speed to get loose," Miller said, "and make big plays from the backfield. He only had a long run of 25 yards on the year, but he's fast enough to shift into second gear and take off. If used on more outside runs, Tate could show off more of his speed."

That seems to be the key for Tate: whether or not he's used extensively and effectively.

Darron Cummings/Associated Press

"Tate wasn't used as much as he could have been in 2012," Miller said, "but he was able to show that his vision and ability to find openings in space has improved. He's taking a page from Arian Foster's playbook and slow-playing outside runs by letting his offensive line get off the ball and set up before he crashes through the line."

While Tate's still at his best hitting holes straight ahead with speed, he's learned to be patient within zone runs and stretches, waiting for his seam to open up. Whether he's put at the point of a traditional power-run game or used in more lateral-zone or one-cut systems, Tate has produced like a solid NFL starter as an understudy and change-of-pace back.

"Tate has the skill to be a starter," Miller said, "but that opportunity likely won't come in Houston. He's doing the best to make the most of his carries and is one of the game's best backup runners."


The Fit

Where would Tate fit best?

Any team that needs a starting running back, of course.

Tate set out to prove he deserved a starting shot in 2012. Not only did he have his most productive season, but he also toughed it out through four broken ribsper Robert Klemko of The MMQB. If a team's looking for a reliable, effective workhorse back, it won't need to look much further.

"When you get to this level, you feel like it doesn't last long," Tate told Klemko about not taking a game off after the ribs were broken, "so you need to soak the moments up, and I felt like this was my moment to show what I could do."

The Cincinnati Bengals had an effective run game in 2013, but that was mostly because of how effective the No. 2 back, rookie Giovani Bernard, was. Primary back BenJarvus Green-Ellis lacks speed or wiggle of any sort, and with a cap number of $2.5 million in 2014 (the final year of his contract), Green-Ellis may well be released.

Green-Ellis rushed for just 3.4 yards per carry in 2013, per Pro-Football-Reference; behind the Bengals' outstanding offensive line, Tate would have no trouble dramatically improving on that mark—and dramatically lessening the Bengals' reliance on inconsistent quarterback Andy Dalton.

The Atlanta Falcons went hard after Steven Jackson in free agency last season to replace an aging, slowing Michael Turner. Jackson appeared to age and slow right before their eyes in 2013, but Tate is just hitting his prime. Tate would seem to be a "luxury buy," but considering how good the Falcons were with a balanced attack in 2012 and how poor they were in 2013, Tate may be a luxury they can't afford to pass up.