No Lead Dog for the Dawg Pound

Ryan McKee takes a look at the running back situation in Cleveland and fears we're in for another dreaded running-back-by-committee.

| 2 years ago
Ben Tate

No Lead Dog for the Dawg Pound


Ben TateWith a number of notable names added to the Cleveland Browns offense this offseason, there are plenty of questions around the skill positions and how that translates to fantasy owners.

We know that new head coach Mike Pettine earned his stripes on the defensive side of the ball, most recently as defensive coordinator for the Bills in 2013. He was quick to hire Kyle Shanahan as offensive coordinator after Kyle was fired by the Redskins after three seasons. In Washington, Shanahan instituted a read option offense that maximized the skill set of Robert Griffin III and made a star out of little-known Alfred Morris.

I doubt we’ll see a facsimile of Washington’s offense in Cleveland and I don’t think that would be Shanahan’s plan even if he had the right personnel. Pettine suggested as much earlier in the year, stating “One of the reasons I hired him was because his system is flexible.”

Part of that flexibility is in dealing with new personnel. Within two years, Washington replaced every starting offensive player not named Santana Moss, and Cleveland looks to be already in a similar mold. Johnny Manziel will become the starting QB at some point this season or next; Miles Austin, Nate Burleson and Andrew Hawkins have been added to the receiving corps; and the running back position is likely to be between free agent signee Ben Tate and rookie Terrance West. Even the offensive line has 14 players on their pre-training camp roster, a sign that no starting spot is guaranteed.

So what kind of offense can we expect in Cleveland? It’s probably a little too early to tell, particularly because we don’t know when Johnny Football will be unleashed and the extent of Josh Gordon’s drug suspension remains unknown.

But at least in terms of the run game, Pettine shed some light on the situation (courtesy of Terry Pluto of The Plain Dealer):

“I think in the AFC North, you have to be running back by committee. You’d like to have a guy that can carry most of the load, but also be able to alternate guys . . . you’ve got to be able to get fresh legs out there.”

That’s less than ideal for those hoping to see Tate as a lead back. Third round draft pick West brings a power running game to Cleveland and has impressed in camp so we can expect to see him integrated sooner than later. Undrafted rookie Isaiah Crowell is another interesting name, a guy who was projected to be a top pick in this year’s draft after a much-heralded high school career and an SEC freshman of the year billing at Georgia. But gun charges that were later dropped saw him cut from the team and he ended up playing at Alabama State, recording 1,923 yards and 30 TDs in two seasons.

But in reality, having Tate in a time-share is probably the best thing for him and the Browns. He’s on the brittle side, having missed his rookie season recovering from reconstructive knee surgery and an additional eight games over the last three seasons.

During those three seasons, he posted 421 carries for 1,992 yards but has underperformed when given an extra workload. Last season was the first in which he had an extended stretch as the lead back due to a midseason injury to Arian Foster. Over the first eight games (with Foster as the primary rusher) he averaged 4.5 ypc on 88 carries versus 4.0 ypc on 93 over the final eight (when Foster was injured). This despite facing defenses in the second half ranked 25th (twice), 19th (twice), 24th and 17th in yards per attempt allowed. In terms of PFF Rating, he finished with a 3.4 rushing rating on the season, including five positive and two negative in the final seven games. Those are modest but promising results, but he struggled in receiving so he actually had an overall rating of -5.7, which included only two positive, three negative and two neutral over those final seven games.

For comparison, he posted an overall rating of 4.9 and a rushing rating of 4.1 in 2012 and 2.5 and 3.5 in 2011 (both seasons include playoffs). Foster, meanwhile, finished with ratings of 4.2 overall and 5.3 rushing last season, 2.2/6.7 in 2012 and 10.7/4.8 in 2011.

But we care mostly about his role as a lead back. So looking only at games in which he was on the field for more than 50% of Houston’s snaps gives us the following:

YEAR WEEK OVERALL RATING REC RATING RUSH RATING
2011  1  -0.6 -0.2 -0.7
2011  2  0.9 0.7 1.0
2011  3  -1.8 -1.3 -0.4
2011  17  -0.4  0.0 -0.3
2013  7  0.4 -0.4 0.4
2013  9  1.1 -0.4 1.7
2013  10  0.2 -1.4 1.1
2013  11  -2.3 -1.2 1.8
2013  13  0.7 -0.4 1.2
2013  14  1.1 -0.5 1.3
2013  16  -3.0 -0.8 -2.6
TOTAL    -3.7  -5.9  4.5

This suggests a running back who can do a decent job rushing the ball but probably not suited for a heavy workload (and don’t even bother with him in the receiving game). Fantasy owners love when a little used back up becomes the main man and often over-draft them in their excitement. Sadly, this doesn’t appear to be the case with Tate and although we can expect an improved overall run game in Cleveland, he should be on your low-end RB2 or high-end RB3 list.

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A Canadian living in Australia and writing about American football, Ryan McKee might be the only person on the planet to work in all three forms of football. In addition to writing fantasy football articles for Pro Football Focus Fantasy, Ryan works for the Aussie Rules football club Essendon FC in Melbourne and previously worked for Vancouver Whitecaps FC of Major League Soccer. He can’t understand why he’s still a Cowboys fan after all these years and can be followed on Twitter @ryanmckee.

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