Dr. Strange Run, or How Trent Richardson Exposed the Flaws in Draft Evaluation and Tanked the Value of Running Backs

Posted: May 10, 2014 in Draft, NFL, Sports

In the 2012 NFL draft the Cleveland Browns selected running back Trent Richardson from the University of Alabama with the 3rd overall pick in that year’s draft. The only two players taken ahead of him were QB’s Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III. On it’s surface it seems like just another draft day gaffe for Browns (who are actually off to a really solid first 3 rounds this year) but the fact is Richardson was the consensus top running back in that year’s draft with rumors that if Cleveland didn’t take him the Buccaneers or someone else would. The Browns even swapped their original #4 pick with the Vikings pick at #3 to keep another team from jumping ahead of them for the right to land the man being touted as the best running back prospect since Adrian Peterson. By the end of the 1st round that year 3 running backs had been taken (David Wilson to the Giants, and Doug Martin to the Buccaneers.)

For those of you not familiar with the story, Richardson had trouble staying healthy his rookie year and revealed at the end of the season that even when he was on the field he was playing through pain. Which really only made his 950 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns more impressive. But the next year the honeymoon was over, Cleveland had hired a new staff of coaches who weren’t thrilled with what Richardson brought to the table and he was dealt to the Indianapolis Colts, for a 1st round pick in this year’s (2014) draft. At the time, the Colts seemed to have made out like bandits, getting such a young and talented player at a position of sudden need with Vick Ballard and Ahmad Bradshaw injured. But Richardson’s struggles continued last season in Indianapolis, blame fell on a lack of time to adjust properly to the new scheme and the Colts remain confident Richardson can be a steady contributor to their offense, but the takeaway is that no one has any idea how well a RB will transition to the NFL and their careers are considered as good as done by the time they’re 30.

Now, I’m not looking to put all the blame on Richardson. David Wilson and Doug Martin also had very promising rookie season’s with Martin finishing as one of the leagues top rushers before injury wiped away an unimpressive start to his 2013 season. David Wilson combined injuries with ball security issues to find himself on the Giants bench for most of 2013. And even still, I’m not looking to place the blame squarely on these 3 young men, but if Trent Richardson ran for 1500 yards and 10 TDs in 2013 with another 250 receiving yards and 2 TD catches I would be willing to bet there would have been a RB taken in round 1 this year.

You might be saying to yourself, well, look at Eddie Lacy he had a great year for Packers, if my theory holds true, shouldn’t that have boosted the draft stock of a guy like Bishop Sankley? (Who had to wait almost as long for his name to be mentioned in this article as he did to hear his name called at the NFL draft) And the answer is, sort of. This year, NFL teams were all in a staring contest at the running back position. There was no clear cut number, so no one wanted to be the first to blink and take a guy in the 2nd only to watch a guy you had rated just as highly go 2 rounds later to a division rival who also added two more, presumably, better players at other positions. This is why once Sankley came off the board at number 54, two of the next three picks were Running backs (Jeremy Hill at 55 to Cincinnati and Carlos Hyde at 57 to the 49ers.) It’s not so much that running backs are being devalued as it is no one in the NFL has any idea how to value them. A good running back can change your franchise. As good as their defense is and as much of a story as Russell Wilson is the Seahawks don’t make it to the Superbowl without Marshawn Lynch. The 49ers would not have made the playoffs the last 3 years if not for the efforts of Frank Gore. Teams understand the importance of a good running game, they just haven’t quite figured out how to get one.

For now at least, the 2nd round seems to be where the value is, and it makes sense. No matter what their injury history was in college the running back position in the NFl is physically demanding enough that every player at the position carries a higher than average injury risk, and that hurts their value. Most teams employ some form of running back by committee or another so the fact that this is a player that won’t see the field on every offensive snap even when full healthy also hurts their value matched up against other positions. And of course, it’s no coincidence the last few years draft classes have been heavy on offensive lineman as teams are finally realizing that everything starts with the big men up front. All the talent in the world won’t make you an effective runner if there’s a linebacker meeting you in the backfield as soon as you touch the ball. So, as the value of offensive lineman and defensive lineman rises the value of running backs fall necessarily to balance it out. We’re actually seeing something similar at the QB position, but there’s still enough of them being taken in the first round to stave off the rumors that their value is also dropping.

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