Well, it seems that the CJ2K era in Tennessee may be coming to an end, though some contest that it’s been over for quite some time now with Chris Johnson looking like a shell of his former self since the season that bore his nickname. He hasn’t eclipsed 1,400 rushing yards since 2009 and isn’t particularly useful near the end zone either.
Set to make $8 million guaranteed in 2014, there’s a good chance that the Tennessee Titans release or attempt to trade Johnson before the man’s able to collect his paper. With perennial underachiever Shonn Greene behind Johnson in the pecking order, the Titans’ running back situation is among the NFL‘s most dire heading into the offseason.
While Greene may be remotely useful in goal-line formations, his effectiveness as an every-down back simply isn’t there. Tennessee is currently among the middle of the pack in terms of cap space and have a little wiggle room to upgrade through free agency. If the front office decides to go this route, their main target should be Houston Texans‘ backup Ben Tate.
After Arian Foster‘s season-ending injury late in 2013, Tate was given the opportunity to improve his stock in the midst of his contract year. After consistent production in Foster’s place — he wasn’t held to under 50 yards rushing in any start — Tate’s stock has done just that as he’s ascended to the top of the free agent pool.
What exactly do scouts see in this kid? Well, firstly, from a purely physical standpoint, Tate is set to be entering the prime of his career. He turns 26 at the beginning of next season and has already impressed thus far into his career. He’s a hard-nosed runner who’s not afraid of contact but often doesn’t find it with his outstanding backfield vision.
When the Houston offensive line created a hole, Tate usually located it and picked up quality yards. His physical tools are certainly there — he’s 220-pounds and runs a 4.43 40 — but he also possesses the intangibles that a three-down NFL back requires.
While stuck behind one of the league’s top backs in Foster, Tate still found a way to produce for the Texans in 2013. Even before starting he was one of the more utilized reserve men in the league — he was seeing around 10 touches a game while spelling Foster — because he’s just too talented to keep on the bench. He finished the season with 771 rushing yards while battling several cracked ribs for much of the year.
Additionally, Tate is a perfect fit for the Tennessee offense. He’s that rare mash-up of power and speed that an offense can build their foundation around. With a subpar O-line, they’ll surely need a back who can keep their legs moving after initial contact; Tate is among the league’s best in this respect.
With new coach Ken Wisenhunt at the helm and presumably a new quarterback in 2014, the Titans will surely desire the stability that Tate provides as well. He’s a competent pass catcher who can provide a nice check-down option for what likely will be a first-year signal caller.
The single concern with Tate is his proneness to injury. He’s been nicked up in just about every conceivable way since his arrival in Houston. In 2010 he missed the entire season with a broken ankle, last season it was his hamstring and foot and then most recently it was the cracked ribs. Tate reminds me a bit of Samuel L. Jackson’s character, Mr. Glass, from Unbreakable; he just can’t seem to walk down the street without catching the injury bug.
Still, I think Tate is one of the safest bets available and may come at less-than market value. Sure, the Titans could also look to scoop a back in the draft — Arizona‘s Ka’Deem Carey or Ohio State‘s Carlos Hyde should still be available in the second round — but Tate would provide the immediate impact that Tennessee needs. Expect GM Ruston Webster to look to work something out with Tate before other options are explored.