The Cleveland Browns could very well transform this season, going from the NFL’s pass happiest offense in 2013 to the run heaviest in 2014. And just as Josh Gordon reaped the benefits of massive aerial volume last season, someone in the Browns’ backfield is set to be a volume producer.
Before we get to who will benefit, let’s look at why the Browns might make the (unprecedented?) move from pass happiest to pass saddest in a single season.
Probably that dramatic change in offensive approach hinges on who starts at quarterback in Kyle Shanahan’s offense. Head coach Mike Pettine has said that in an ideal world, Johnny Manziel would not be under center to start the season. He seemingly prefers Brian Hoyer.
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If — and clearly it’s a giant IF — Manziel gets the nod for Week 1, Shanahan is widely expected to revert to something resembling his 2012 Washington offense, which leveraged Robert Griffin III’s pre-injury mobility to keep defenses guessing and beating front sevens with a heavy load of Alfred Morris.
“Johnny and Robert are very similar,” Shanahan told USA TODAY Sports. “They’re both talented guys who can make plays with their legs. But there comes a time in the NFL when they’re going to keep you in the pocket, and you’re going to have to have that ability to make the throws with your arm and mind.”
Shanahan, even in a 2013 season that saw Washington kick into comeback mode early and often, called more running plays than all but a dozen NFL teams. I think it’s safe to say that Cleveland, especially if (when) Manziel seizes the starting mantle, will be among the five or six run-heaviest offenses in the league.
Oh, and that Josh Gordon guy probably won’t play this season.
The beneficiaries of Young Shanny
Ben Tate, after a few years as second fiddle in Houston, was signed by the Browns ostensibly to serve as their starting running back. This, of course, has come into serious question as rookie Terrance West has handled most of the first-team snaps in Browns minicamp and OTAs. The Cleveland Plain Dealer charges that West will play “a major role” in the Browns’ offense.
Tate’s average draft position (ADP) has taken a bit of a dive as the Browns play it safe with their shiny new free agent who broke not one, not two, but four ribs in the raging dumpster fire that was the Houston Texans’ 2013 offense.
Tate is now the 25th running back off the draft board, going in the middle of the fifth round. Trent Richardson, Ray Rice, and Steven Jackson — the holy trinity of 2013 Fantasy Hate — are primed to pass Tate on the draft board this summer.
There are clearly a few red flags in investing in Tate, but if the Browns run the ball with 2012 Washington volume, he could still be worth a pick at such a reasonable price.
Here’s why: Tate has a career average of .72 fantasy points per touch, with a career high of .74 points per touch in 2011. Last year saw his career low (.68), which shouldn’t come as a surprise with Case Keenum under center and Tate hobbling around with a handful of nicks, bumps, and yes, cracked ribs.
Morris, during his rookie campaign with Young Shanny calling plays, posted .74 points per touch, for what it’s worth.
Below is a quick look at a rough range of outcomes for Tate in an offense that could run the ball around 500 times in 2014. The outcomes range from Tate as the lesser half of a backfield committee with West, a straight timeshare with the rookie, and the primary ball carrier.
|153 points (RB28)
|162 points (RB25)
|166.5 points (RB24)
|166.6 points (RB24)
|176.4 points (RB23)
|181.3 points (RB21)
|197.2 points (RB18)
|208.8 points (RB16)
|214.6 points (RB15)
Nothing in this chart jumps out as overwhelmingly positive for Tate, but I think it shows that he’s a safe — if not unsexy — investment at his RB25 ADP. In none of the above scenarios would he represent a fantasy disaster, and in three, he would have solid equity for those who take him in the fifth round.
Unless you’re expecting the Browns to have a balanced or pass-heavy attack in 2014, or for Tate to be nothing but a complementary option to West, I think he’s worth serious consideration.
I didn’t include a scenario in which Tate posts new career high efficiency numbers. Tate, with a .78 per-touch average (hardly a stretch) and 250 touches would post RB17 numbers. He’d be a top-10 fantasy option if he saw 300 touches at that rate.
I’m apt to add Tate to the list of middle and late-round running backs who make the early-round receiver approach a viable one. Tate, Ryan Mathews, Rashad Jennings, Toby Gerhart, and Joique Bell could all be centerpieces of a draft approach that skimps on runner in favor of elite pass catchers.
Run Tate through the Confidence Algorithm and you might just have a low end RB1 for the price of a high-end RB3.
“I’m not worried about [West] because I know when I’m on my game, there’s no one that can really touch me or that’s close to what I do,” Tate said in an interview with Ohio.com. “[The media] may see it like that, but when I know what I’m doing, what I’m supposed to do, there’s nobody in that room [of running backs] that scares me. I’m just honest.”