Ben Tate finally has his chance.
To show he should be a featured back. To prove the career 4.7-yard average per carry isn’t the product of limited attempts. To fulfill the potential he believes he has.
Tate (5-foot-10, 220 pounds) signed a two-year deal Saturday with the Browns that’s reportedly worth up to $7 million. He fills a void on the roster and should be the starter.
“I feel like now that I’ve been given this opportunity that I can be one of the top backs in the league,” he said on a conference call. “I’m going to let my play speak for itself. But I want it to be known that I do feel like I’m a guy who’s gonna be a top-10, top-eight, top-five running back.
“Everyone will have their own opinion. After I play I think everyone is going to agree to kind of what I said. It’s been something I’ve been waiting for for a long time. So I’m just ready to grab this opportunity and run with it and show everyone what I’m all about.”
Tate, 25, was a second-round draft pick of the Texans out of Auburn in 2010. He missed his rookie year after a preseason ankle injury, then spent the next three seasons playing second fiddle to Arian Foster, a three-time Pro Bowler and the NFL rushing leader in 2010.
Tate has averaged a healthy 4.7 a carry with 1,992 yards and 10 touchdowns in 40 games, including nine starts. He rushed for 942 yards on 175 attempts for a 5.4-yard average — third highest in the NFL — along with four touchdowns in 2011. He’s been waiting to become a free agent and spread his wings.
“It was very tough because when you’re stuck behind someone like that, it’s tough to really showcase your talent on a consistent basis,” Tate said. “And that’s kind of why I’m in the situation that I’m in now where I did sign a two-year deal, because I wanted to be able to show what I can do on a more consistent basis. It’s tough because you can’t be seen. You can’t show everyone what you can do, so therefore everyone doesn’t know your full worth.”
Tate was among the top running backs available in free agency and the Browns were a natural landing spot. They’ve been searching for a starter since trading Trent Richardson in Week 3 last season, which led to ranking tied for 27th in rushing (86.4 yards per game) and just four touchdowns on the ground.
But while free agents at other positions cashed in with huge contracts early in the week, Tate had to wait a few days and take a short-term deal. Such is the state of the running back in a pass-first league.
“In the grand scheme of things I think they know it’s important,” he said. “But right now I think they feel like they can get away with not paying running backs what they’re really worth. Maybe they think you don’t need just that one guy, you can just plug in anybody and let them do it. I think some teams are finding out that’s not really true. If you want to be a real contender, you need that guy.”
The Browns haven’t been a contender for almost three decades, and an elite runner would certainly help. Tate may have the skills, but he needs to stay healthy.
In addition to the ankle injury in 2010, he was bothered by foot and hamstring injuries in 2012 — limited to 279 yards on 65 carries — and four cracked ribs last year. He played through the ribs until going on injured reserve for the final two games, finishing the year with 181 carries for 771 yards, a 4.3 average and four touchdowns. He’s missed eight games in three years.
“I wouldn’t say that I’m an injury-prone guy,” Tate said. “Injuries do happen at my position. You can’t do anything about having a broken ankle and tearing up my ankle.”
Tate didn’t take visits to any other teams but said he had a couple lined up if the deal with the Browns fell through. He arrived Thursday but the contract didn’t get signed until Saturday.
“In the grand scheme of things, I really wanted to be here,” he said. “I felt like the pieces that’s already here, offensive line-wise and their plans to build in the rest of free agency and also in the draft. So I felt like this was going to be just the best opportunity for me at the end of the day to succeed and to help turn this thing around and take it to another level.”
During the time in Cleveland, fans were anxious for updates. Tate tweeted a picture of the Terminal Tower on Friday night, then announced the deal with a video on his Twitter account, accompanied by the message: “This is for all u crazy @browns fans (crazy in a good way) who’ve been blowing me up on twitter all week!! LOL.”
“It’s official, I’m a Brown,” he said in the video. “Give you guys a great running back. Let’s do this.”
He ended the message with four barks.
“I was having fun with them the last two days that I was here,” he said. “I thought it was pretty funny, they were pretty in tune with what was going on, they were all trying to figure out where I was at.”
Tate said he didn’t know how to describe his running style, but elaborated easily on all the things he can do.
“I just run hard,” he said. “I feel like I’m explosive. I feel like I can make guys miss when you hit the open field. I feel like if it’s third-and-1 and I’ve got to go one-on-one with a linebacker that I can do that as well.
“So I just feel like I’m a total package. I feel like I can do everything there is to do. I can catch the ball out of the backfield. I’m a three-down back. So I just would say I’m just a complete back.”
Tate ran in the one-cut zone-blocking scheme in Houston, which is similar to the one used by new Browns coordinator Kyle Shanahan.
“His offense has different, little tweaks to it than what we did down in Houston, but it’s a good scheme,” Tate said. “I like it because they find that the running backs are important. They hand you the ball, they throw you the ball. That was the thing to me.
“I know he likes to use his running backs and how he likes to use them, so I felt like that gave me an advantage.”
But Tate dismissed the familiarity with the scheme as his reason for picking Cleveland.
“It was just about the connection that I have with the coaches and the pieces that are here,” he said. “I believe in what Coach (Mike) Pettine wants to do and the things that they want to do to help.”
Tate was the fifth free agent signed by the Browns and new general manager Ray Farmer. They’ve added inside linebacker Karlos Dansby, strong safety Donte Whitner, cornerback/special teamer Isaiah Trufant and tight end Jim Dray. They also have a signed offer sheet from receiver Andrew Hawkins, which the Bengals have until Tuesday to match.