Tate is the answer if he avoids painful past

Ben Tate is the answer for the Cleveland Browns at running back if he can answer one question: Can he stay healthy?

The Browns are undoubtedly making the right move by signing Tate on Saturday to a two-year deal worth up to $7 million. He's the best available in an underwhelming free-agent running back class, and the Browns need a starting running back.

An understudy to Arian Foster in Houston, Tate has the potential to be this year's breakout running back. He's 25 and he's got a 4.7-yard per carry average. Tate is a fit for the division and the Browns' scheme. His downhill running style suits the AFC North, especially when the sloppy weather conditions set in. His experience in the Texans' zone-blocking scheme makes it easy to envision he'll have the same success with the same one cut-and-burst in Kyle Shanahan's offense.

Still, when the Browns hand the ball off to Tate, you just never know whether he's going to break a long run or a bone. Two of his four NFL seasons have ended on injured reserve. A second-round pick in 2010, Tate broke his ankle in the preseason opener and was out for the season. Last season, he was put on IR in December with a rib injury.

"When I'm healthy, I think I'm an elite running back in this league," Tate said this week.

Tate isn't soft. He's known for playing through injuries. Last season, he battled through four cracked ribs much of the season to rush for 771 yards and four touchdowns in 14 games, including seven starts.

But Tate won't live up to his potential if he can't stay healthy. His injury history is as long as anyone else's in the NFL over the past three seasons:

2011: Eight weeks on the injury report (quadriceps, back, hip, groin, ankle, foot and shoulder)

2012: 15 weeks on the injury report (head, toe, hamstring and foot)

2013: 13 weeks on the injury report (shoulder, elbow, ribs, ankle and toe)

Tate will have to prove himself in Cleveland, where the bad-luck Browns have had their share of misfortune with running backs. Jamal Lewis' career ended because of concussions. Second-round pick Montario Hardesty was never healthy because of knee and calf problems. And Trent Richardson, the No. 3 overall pick of the 2012 draft, was limited throughout his 17-game run with the Browns due to knee and rib injuries.

All of these injuries have led to one of the most consistently bad rushing attacks in the NFL. These are the Browns' rankings in run offense since 2010: 20th, 28th, 24th and 27th. Last season, the patchwork ground game was so awful that seven different Browns players led the team in rushing in a game last season. Among that group were wide receivers Josh Gordon and Travis Benjamin, and even defensive back Josh Aubrey.

But, like it seems every year in Cleveland, it's a new coach, a new play-caller and a new hope. It was a no-brainer to sign Tate over the likes of Maurice Jones-Drew, Knowshon Moreno and LeGarrette Blount.

Tate is exactly the type of young power runner that the Browns need. That is, if he can stay healthy.