Right from the start, this trade had its detractors.
I have no words for my contempt for this trade.— Nate Dunlevy (@NateDunlevy) September 18, 2013
The problems with this trade didn't have anything to do with Richardson as a player, but rather, it had to do with the broader issues.
Trading a first-round pick for Richardson meant that the Colts legitimately believed that running back was their biggest hole on the roster (hint: it was not).
It meant that the "run the ball, stop the run" philosophies that Chuck Pagano had spouted since he came to Indianapolis were real. It meant that the Colts were dedicated to run-heavy formations and gameplans, and they weren't planning on opening the offense up any more.
It meant that games like the loss to San Diego, were very possible—even probable.
The fact is that trading a first-round pick for a running back will simply net you poor value all around.
You can get value from running backs from almost anywhere on the draft board. Take a look at last year's top-eight running backs (top 25% of the league), according to Football Outsiders' DYAR:
|Player||Team||Year Drafted||Draft Round|
Yes, the top three were first-round picks, but the rest were found all throughout the draft. This doesn't even look at backs like Arian Foster (undrafted), LeSean McCoy (second round) and Jamaal Charles (third round), who all have legitimate claims at being top-five backs in the league as well.
Let's take a closer look at those first three backs, though.
Marshawn Lynch is great for Seattle, but they didn't give up a first-round pick to get him. Buffalo drafted him in the first round, and then traded him for a fourth- and a fifth-round pick in 2010. So, the team who actually spent a first-rounder on him certainly didn't reap the rewards there.
C.J. Spiller, another first-round pick for Buffalo, hasn't translated to wins either. Spiller's a great talent, but Buffalo has never won more than six games since he's been there, much less made it to the playoffs.
The fact is that spending a first-round pick on a running back isn't where you find the most value. It is a passing league, and teams need players that can help in the passing game, whether it's through throwing the ball, protecting the quarterback, catching the ball, getting after the quarterback or intercepting the quarterback.
An elite passer, pass-rusher, cornerback or wide receiver impacts the game much more than an elite running back does, and teams should spend their first-round picks finding players at these premier positions.
In the Colts' specific case, the trade also came at an odd time. Ahmad Bradshaw and Donald Brown were still healthy when Richardson was acquired, and running back was not at the top of the list of needs. The team's more pressing needs included: interior offensive linemen, a true No. 2 receiver, another pass-rusher, an inside linebacker and a No. 2 corner.
If the Colts wanted to build an elite running game, it needed to start at the offensive line, which currently has just two above-average players starting (tackles Anthony Castonzo and Gosder Cherilus). Richardson, or any other back, was never going to transform the running game alone.
Less Than Impressive
But even outside of philosophical differences, the trade has looked worse and worse as time has gone on. Richardson, like some had feared, simply hasn't looked like the elite back that he would need to be for this trade to even resemble a win for Indianapolis.
Granted, Richardson has been running behind a line that isn't very good, and he has not always been put into position to succeed.
Nevertheless, saying that Richardson hasn't impressed would be an understatement. The former third-overall pick has looked slow, indecisive and lacking vision in his first four games as a Colt.
So far in Indianapolis, Richardson has tallied a grade of minus-3.6 from Pro Football Focus (subscription required). That's the lowest grade of any Colts' offensive player not named Samson Satele, Mike McGlynn or Hugh Thornton (otherwise known as the "Interior Line From Hades").
Behind the same line, Ahmad Bradshaw had a grade of plus-2.7 prior to his injury, and Vick Ballard a plus-0.6. Richardson is currently ranked 47 out of 54 in PFF's grades for running backs.
Looking at other advanced stats, Richardson has below-average marks in all of them—DVOA, EPA, etc.
His traditional stats are obviously lacking as well, as he is averaging just 3.1 yards per carry and has caught only two passes in four games.
Meanwhile, Richardson's backup, Donald Brown, is tearing it up in limited opportunities. Brown is averaging 7.8 yards per carry. Also, his DVOA would be second-best in the league and both his EPA and WPA have him in the top 15 for all backs in the league.
While Brown certainly has seen more looks in three-wide and shotgun sets than Richardson, the fact is that even when he's asked to run up the middle behind a fullback, he's been productive. Take this play for example:
Backed up inside their own 10-yard line, the Colts lined up in a run-heavy set. The Chargers crowded the line of scrimmage, expecting the run, and Brown managed to rush for eight yards.
How? He was decisive. As soon as he saw a hole, he hit it, made one subtle cut and was eight yards down the field. One tough 2-yard run later, and the Colts had a first down.
In fact, the Colts got a first down on every single series in which Brown touched the ball on Sunday.
Now, that's not to say that Brown is a Pro-Bowler, or that he is even better than Richardson. Rather, it just points to the fact that Richardson hasn't been good, whereas his backup has been able to find success.
Richardson has had a few flashes of potential, such as converting two tough third downs in the last two weeks by breaking tackles. Richardson has also been highly successful in short-yardage situations (although the Colts' usage of him there has been really sketchy).
But flashing potential a few times doesn't make up for a first-round pick.
The sad part is, even if Richardson plays well, it won't necessarily lead to wins.
Richardson's most impressive game thus far came against San Diego this past Monday. Richardson averaged 4.0 yards per carry, and he also had an impressive catch and gut-it-out run for a third-down conversion. In general, he looked much more impressive than he had in the first three games.
Nevertheless, the Colts lost by double-digits because the passing game couldn't get into a rhythm.
The NFL is all about the passer. If the quarterback is on, the offense is on. Occasionally, you can win a game, but you can't sustain offensive success unless you can sustain success through the air.
This is especially true with the Colts' struggles on the offensive line. Without a first-round pick next season, it's going to be more and more difficult to fix some of these other problems.
So is the trade a dud? At this point, how could it be considered anything but?
There are legitimate excuses to be made for Richardson, but unless he transforms into a Peterson-type of talent, he'll be hard-pressed to make the trade worth it for Indianapolis.
Richardson may not be deemed a dud yet. But the trade? Absolutely.