On the surface, the Cleveland Browns trading away the No. 3 pick in the 2012 draft, per Adam Schefter of ESPN, for a mid-to-late first-round pick in the 2014 NFL draft doesn’t seem logical. Especially when they traded four 2012 draft picks to select Trent Richardson with that third overall pick in the first place.
But it does make sense when you factor in that the front office, which made the most recent transaction, was not the one that selected Richardson last year.
Trading away immediate talent for a forthcoming, unknown commodity is a maddening concept for fans. The fact that Richardson was one of the few offensive players on the roster worth celebrating makes the trade even more befuddling.
As a result, I understand the desire that Cleveland fans may have to go all “Jules Winnfield” on the front office and “strike down upon them with great vengeance and furious anger.” Fortunately, they don’t need to do that.
For starters, they got great value back in the deal because running backs in general aren’t worth first-round picks—at least, not anymore.
The NFL has evolved into a passing league. You can’t expect to reach the mountain top without a great quarterback. That’s why we saw Jim Harbaugh gamble on an unproven Colin Kaepernick over the solid, but unspectacular, Alex Smith last season.
It’s also why we saw the Baltimore Ravens pay an unprecedented sum of money to retain the services of their signal-caller, only to see the Green Bay Packers spend even more money (in terms of annual salary) to do the same thing.
Like the quarterback, the running back position has also changed, but it’s gone the other way. They are just no longer that valuable, relatively speaking of course.
Here is a table breaking down all of the first-round running backs selected in the last 10 drafts, dating back to 2003. I categorized them as: Elite (great backs with sustained excellence), Good Starters (players who had great years, but didn't perform with the consistency of the elite), Decent (players who have shown the ability to be the featured back, but haven’t sustained that level of play for whatever reason) and Busts (players who underperformed).
The number of great players in that group is far too low. Some of those players didn’t pan out due to injury (Larry Johnson has an asterisk because he only played in all 16 games twice. When he did, he was otherworldly, so I designated him "elite"). Others were only good for a very short window.
Almost a third of them, however, were downright bad. First-round picks can turn around a franchise, and it is inexcusable to waste too many of them.
The 2013 NFL draft marked the first draft since 1963 where a running back was not selected in the first round. That seems likely to happen again in 2014, according to B/R’s Matt Miller and his latest mock draft. This isn’t a reflection of the running back talent in the draft class, but that the value of the position has fallen.
General managers have taken note of the extremely high value of first-round picks and the volatility of recent first-round running backs. The result is that they’re going to stay away from a running back in the first round unless he’s a can’t-miss prospect who projects to be an Adrian Peterson clone.
This sentiment is only supported by the success that non-first-round picks (and even some undrafted players) have found at the position. In each of the last three seasons, approximately half of the top 15 rushers were not first-round picks.
Maybe Richardson is a franchise back, if there even is such a thing anymore. Perhaps, he becomes the best running back in the league, and there comes a day when the Cleveland Browns wish they still had him on their roster.
But for right now? He couldn’t take that team anywhere that it hadn’t already been.
That’s not a criticism of Richardson in any way, shape or form. He averaged 3.6 yards per carry last year, facing a stacked box every week, while having two broken ribs for more than half the season. Unfortunately, he couldn’t grow (and the team couldn’t improve) without a franchise quarterback.
At best, they would have won five games this year. Now, they almost certainly won’t reach that mark, but this trade is about the future.
They didn’t need an extra first-round pick to select a quarterback. They will probably be bad enough that their own draft slot gives them their choice of Teddy Bridgewater, Marcus Mariota, Brett Hundley or whichever quarterback takes their fancy.
But this front office is betting on themselves. They’re betting that they can find a starting running back somewhere that isn’t the first round. With 10 picks in the 2014 NFL draft (seven of which are in the first four rounds), they’re also betting that they can stock their barren shelves with an influx of young, cheap talent.
Whether it’s ever smart for a Cleveland Browns front office to bet on itself is another issue. For right now, give them credit for having the guts to make a drastic—and controversial—move in an effort to right a ship that has been sailing directly toward an iceberg for years.
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