Ben Tate has been vexing the football world for years.
As a prep star out of Maryland, he was an important signee for Auburn, but his production was inconsistent for three seasons. Then, he busted out for 1,362 yards as a senior, ran a 4.43 40-yard dash at 220 pounds, and shot up NFL draft boards to the second round. Then, he broke his ankle in his first preseason game as a rookie and didn't play a snap the entire regular season.
In 2011, Tate served as the understudy to Arian Foster and impressed with 942 rushing yards (5.4 per carry). But in 2012, he was plagued by hamstring and foot injuries that limited him to just 65 carries. This past season, he was given a golden opportunity to becomes the Houston Texans' full-time back after Foster got hurt; instead, Tate suffered broken ribs that eventually landed him on injured reserve.
Now the Cleveland Browns have signed Tate to lead an otherwise-unimpressive depth RB chart: Edwin Baker, Chris Ogbonnaya, Fozzy Whittaker and Dion Lewis are all that stand between Tate and a relatively full-time gig. Even better, the Browns' new offensive coordinator is Kyle Shanahan. Though he was never actually Tate's coordinator in Houston, Shanahan helped establish the one-cut, zone-blocking scheme for which the Texans are famous and which suits Tate's downhill style. It's easy to imagine that in a completely healthy season, Tate would be a candidate to lead the NFL in carries. He's a big guy with some violence to his game; he's not quite as patient or explosive as Foster, but there's overlap between the two men.
However, Tate's durability questions are real. He's missed 24 of a possible 64 regular-season games as a pro, was listed as "questionable" in three more games, and has not appeared on his team's injury report only 13 times. Clearly, you can claim that any NFL running back is an injury risk, but Tate has struggled through issues with his ankle, quad, back, hip, groin, shoulder, head, toe, hamstring, foot, elbow and ribs. I think the instinct for Shanahan and head coach Mike Pettine will be to ride Tate hard. But if they do, I think he's a candidate to miss multiple games. There will be strong potential reward in drafting Tate this summer, which is why I've currently got him as my No. 19 RB. But the downside will be immense.
Here are the weekend's other key transactions:
Nicks is another guy who's never made it through a full NFL season without being injured. Unfortunately, even when he's on the field, he doesn't always look fully invested. Perhaps that's not really fair; Nicks has suffered a series of leg injuries that simply may have sapped his already middling speed. But the fact remains that he didn't get open much during his final season with the New York Giants, a campaign during which he caught 56 passes, and there were reports after last season that he was fined multiple times for skipping training-room sessions and arriving late to meetings. This guy scored 24 TDs in his first three seasons with the Giants and three in his final two, including zero in 2013.
But if he's got anything left, you'd have to believe Andrew Luck can bring it out of him. The Colts would love for Nicks to be a true outside threat who can demand safety help, so that Reggie Wayne and T.Y. Hilton can run against single coverage from the inside. Certainly, after Wayne's torn ACL last season, Indy struggled to find consistent non-Hilton options. I'm just skeptical Nicks is hiding a whole bunch in his tank, and I doubt the Colts' Week 1 opponent will lose sleep game-planning to double-team Hakeem Nicks. Could he revert to dominant ways in the red zone and siphon off some TDs from Hilton and Wayne? Yes. But I'd have a hard time trusting Nicks on my fantasy team. I think he'll come third or fourth in a relatively conservative passing attack, and as such will be hard-pressed to exceed his 896 receiving yards from last year. I've left Hilton and Wayne as my No. 21 and 24 WRs, respectively, and only hiked Nicks to No. 41.
New England Patriots re-sign Julian Edelman, sign Brandon LaFell
Pats fans hopeful that their team would make a major splash in free agency at wideout are apparently going to be disappointed. Thus far, New England has spent serious money remaking its cornerback depth chart with Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, and then chose to retain Danny Amendola (at least so far), re-up Edelman and sign LaFell. While such judgments made in March are subject to change, to me this means the Patriots' receiving corps that underwhelmed in 2013 will largely return in 2014, and cause similar angst as it did this past season.
Of course, Edelman wasn't the problem last year. He finally shook his own injury demons to play the full 16 for the first time in his career, and became Tom Brady's favorite weapon. Edelman grabbed 105 passes, good for fourth in the NFL. Naturally, not many of his Wes Welker-like looks are particularly far down the field; his 5.3 yards at the catch average was 76th out of 85 qualified WRs last year. But he produced six double-digit fantasy-point days even in standard leagues, and was even better in PPR. There's every reason to expect a duplicate season from Edelman in 2014, which explains why I've got him ranked 28th on my WR list. You won't get many games with massive yardage totals, but you'll regularly get something around seven grabs for 77 yards, and he'll find the end zone between six and eight times.
As for LaFell? Meh. His calling card in the NFL has actually been his blocking. As a wideout, he's never come close to manifesting his physical gifts. He can jump out of the stadium, but has 13 career TDs in four seasons. He runs a 4.54 40 at 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds, but hasn't been a deep threat. And the drops. Oy, the drops. His 6.0 percent drop rate in 2013 was 12th worst among qualifying WRs. I know New England needs an outside receiver to threaten safeties deep. Unfortunately, having watched LaFell blow chance after chance to become a consistent contributor with the Carolina Panthers, I actually consider Aaron Dobson -- who's recovering from surgery on a stress fracture in his foot -- a better bet to be that guy. (And actually, LaFell ran 271 of his 431 routes out of the slot last year, anyway.) LaFell is only my No. 56 WR right now, and his presence isn't changing my rank of Edelman or Amendola.
It is simply never bad to become one of Peyton Manning's weapons. Sanders produced a career-best 67 catches for 740 yards and six TDs in Todd Haley's short-passing offense last year, and that stat line has to be considered his floor in Denver. With a single stroke of the pen, Sanders has made fantasy owners sit up and take notice.
Listen, Sanders isn't Eric Decker. At 5-foot-11 and 180 pounds, he's a little guy with great quickness and impressive long speed; if there's a good comparison for him in the league right now, it might be T.Y. Hilton. So proclaiming that Sanders is suddenly a candidate to duplicate Decker's red zone production and 24 TDs over the past two seasons would probably be an overstatement. But Sanders is a candidate to split out wide. On film, he regularly shows the raw quickness and agility necessary to get off the line against big corners, and in fact rarely lined up in the slot during his final year with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
So while he's got some duplication of skills with slot man Welker, I believe in terms of roles these two guys can easily coexist. This is something about which to be excited. I feel solid projecting a 1,100-yard season for Sanders. So even though he's maybe not the greatest bet to wind up with double-digit TDs, he's a legit fantasy option, even at the incredibly deep WR position. He's currently my No. 29 fantasy wideout.