How Do the Cleveland Browns Replace Trent Richardson?

Andrea Hangst@FBALL_AndreaFeatured Columnist IVSeptember 18, 2013

When Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay tweeted on Wednesday that a "monster trade" was soon to be announced, it was easy to dismiss it as another of the eccentric's bombastic, hyperbolic statements.

But a monster trade it was indeed: The Colts gave up their 2014 first-round draft pick for Cleveland Browns running back Trent Richardson, their 2012 first-round pick, taken third overall. The team was quick to confirm the news

On the one hand, the trade now positions the Browns to take any number of top 2014 draft prospects, franchise quarterbacks included. Because of their draft-day dealings, they now have seven picks in the first few rounds—a pair of ones, a two, two threes and two fours.

But now the Browns have a running back problem.

Behind Richardson sits only Chris Ogbonnaya, their third-down back, and Bobby Rainey, whom the Browns picked up when the Baltimore Ravens cut him and who went undrafted in 2012.

It looks like Willis McGahee, a veteran free agent, will be Cleveland's new starter, assuming he passes his physical. McGahee, who became expendable in Denver after a knee injury ended his 2012 season and the Broncos drafted Montee Ball, is an effective back with a different set of skills than Richardson.

In fact, those skills might better mesh with the types of backs who offensive coordinator Norv Turner has favored over the years—physical, yes, but fast and shifty, able to run north-south as well as slip outside of the tackles.

McGahee had 167 carries for 731 yards and four touchdowns before his injury 10 games into the 2012 season. He had 249 carries the year before for 1,199 yards and four touchdowns. He's also a valuable receiver, pulling down 26 passes on 33 targets for 221 yards last season.

With that being said, it is still a curious move that the Browns would choose to trade away their prized running back only 17 games into his career.

Richardson might have underperformed in his rookie year, with 950 yards to his 267 carries, but he started the year on the mend from knee surgery and then played most of it with broken ribs. He was to be the star in the Cleveland offense this year, especially at full health and with a running back guru as his coordinator. 

Furthermore, even if the Browns do sign McGahee, he won't likely play on Sunday—not with so few days to prepare.

A running back's job is more than just taking the handoff, finding the hole and running; he needs to know the blocking schemes, work on protecting the quarterback and learn the language of the offense. This means that Rainey and Ogbonnaya are the Browns' only hopes against the Minnesota Vikings, a tough team that they face on the road.

Richardson may have averaged only 2.1 yards after contact last year to 2.4 for McGahee, but the ribs issues must be taken into account. So far this year, Richardson's number is up to 2.4, despite having only 31 rushing attempts through two games.

There were signs that he'd be the player he was in college at Alabama: Pro Football Focus has Richardson currently atop the rankings for their "elusiveness rating," which breaks down a back's success without the help of the offensive line. Richardson has broken 14 tackles in his 31 rushes this year and two in his seven receptions.

But apparently the Browns want to go in another direction offensively.

This move comes on the heels of the announcement early Wednesday that Brian Hoyer will be the team's starting quarterback, reported by ESPN, while Brandon Weeden—another 2012 first-rounder—recovers from a sprained thumb on his throwing hand.

In less than 12 hours, the core of Cleveland's offense has changed completely. This latest move clearly indicates that Weeden may never regain his old job once he's healthy—the new regime has little interest in what the old one was trying to build.

For now, what's next is Rainey and Ogbonnaya holding down the running game until McGahee (should he be signed) is ready to go, likely in Week 4.

Ultimately, the Browns appear to be robbing themselves of the present for a better, brighter future. But between now and that time is a long gulf full of football games the Browns are now farther away from winning without Richardson in the fold. 

It's a gamble; whether or not it pays off will determine much of the franchise's future. If it works, they get a starting quarterback in the first round of 2014 and some other major offensive components from which to build for the long term.

If not, rebuilding under a new front office could be closer than we think.

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