The Cleveland Browns sent shock waves through the league when they traded running back Trent Richardson, the No. 3 overall selection in the 2012 NFL draft, to the Indianapolis Colts on Wednesday. It is rare for any first-round pick, let alone a top-three overall pick, to be traded less than two years into his NFL career.
In a league where in-season trades of high-profile players rarely occur, the Richardson trade was unusual to say the least. The Browns gave up on their most promising young offensive player, deciding they would be better off with the chance to select another promising young player with the Colts’ first-round pick in the 2014 NFL draft than continue developing Richardson.
My initial reaction to the Browns’ decision to trade Richardson was the same as many others—critical. While Richardson hasn’t played up to his potential yet (1,055 yards in 17 games), he still has the potential to be an elite NFL running back. Trading him also leaves the Browns with very few offensive weapons.
The trade is also, at least on paper, a loss of value for the Browns. The Colts are a potential playoff team whose first-round pick will almost certainly be significantly lower than the No. 3 overall pick the Browns used to select Richardson (after trading fourth-, fifth- and seventh-round selections to move up from No. 4 overall in that draft).
After taking the time to consider all sides of the deal, rationalization has replaced much of the initial disgust and befuddlement toward the Browns’ decision. While it is not good for a No. 3 overall pick to not remain a long-term piece of the organization’s rebuilding, there were numerous reasons for the Browns to make the trade.
A Mistake for the Browns? Time Will Tell
By trading Richardson early in his second season for what will likely be a mid-to-late first-round pick, the Browns made it clear that Richardson failed to live up to the expectations the team had when it drafted him with the No. 3 overall pick.
Those expectations, however, were not set by the Browns’ current brain trust. General manager Michael Lombardi, president Joe Banner, coach Rob Chudzinski and owner Jimmy Haslam have all joined the Browns within the past year. Those who made the call to trade up and draft Richardson, most notably then-general manager Tom Heckert and then-president Mike Holmgren, are no longer with the organization.
The new Browns regime clearly didn’t see in Richardson what the old regime did. Because Cleveland’s current decision-makers were not the ones who made the decision to draft Richardson, they did not feel the same ties to him that those who decided to draft him No. 3 overall would have.
The only clear takeaway in terms of Richardson’s value as the No. 3 overall pick is the Browns’ decision-makers at the time viewed Richardson as the best player in the draft not named Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III. Whether the rest of the NFL viewed Richardson is a top-three player at the time of the 2012 draft is unknown.
For a running back with a 3.5 yards-per-carry average and only three 100-yard games thus far in his NFL career, the Browns received solid return value in a first-round pick. The Browns would not have traded Richardson if they believed he would live up to his original expectations, so they likely felt his trade value would only continue to decrease over time and trading him now would be their best opportunity to maximize his trade value.
Heckert and Holmgren are no longer with the Browns for numerous reasons, but one of those reasons is they failed to build a winner during their years with the franchise. The Browns’ current brain trust shouldn’t be handcuffed by the decisions of their predecessors, and in fact should receive credit for being bold enough to make such a drastic move just 17 months after the Browns anointed Richardson as a key piece to their franchise’s future.
The Browns might receive more credit for the latter had they made a move to replace the team’s other 2012 first-round pick, Brandon Weeden, who has been a major disappointment as the team’s starting quarterback to this point.
The Browns appeared to be handcuffed by the previous regime’s selection of Weeden earlier this offseason, keeping him in place as their starting quarterback for this season. Their theory may have changed since, as the Browns are expected to be angling themselves toward a run at a top quarterback in the 2014 NFL draft.
In 2014, the team must avoid repeating its mistakes from 2012.
The Browns are likely to be in a similar position as they were then, with their own pick likely to be a top-five selection and the Colts’ pick likely to be in the latter half of Round 1. They are also likely to use one of their picks on a quarterback, and chances are good they will use the other on another offensive playmaker.
Many projections will have the Browns approaching the situation the other way around, selecting a quarterback with their top draft pick and using their second first-round pick on a running back or wide receiver. The Browns may be in better position now had they done that in 2012: They could have used the No. 4 overall pick on quarterback Ryan Tannehill and added running back Doug Martin, whose NFL career is off to a much stronger start than Richardson’s, with the No. 22 pick.
As far as Richardson is concerned, concluding which Browns regime made a mistake will be determined by Richardson’s success or lack of in the rest of his NFL career. If Richardson lives up to his elite potential with the Colts, the trade will be viewed as a bad decision, but if Richardson fails to make good on his upside, the decision to draft him in 2012 will be viewed as the Browns’ mistake.
A Smart Move for the Colts
The trade may eventually work out in the Browns’ favor, but it immediately looks like a strong move for the Colts.
The Colts are in a position to win now, but they should continue to look long term as they are built around a 24-year-old quarterback in Andrew Luck. The acquisition of Richardson makes sense both short term and long term for the Colts.
Richardson fills a major need immediately for the Colts at running back, where he should become the team’s bell cow from the get-go in Week 3 versus the San Francisco 49ers. At only 22 years old, however, he adds another core long-term piece at the offensive skill positions in addition to Luck, wide receiver T.Y. Hilton and tight ends Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener.
There is risk in trading a first-round pick for Richardson, who has battled injuries throughout his short NFL career thus far and has yet to show the same inside-outside explosion as an NFL back that he did at Alabama. The risk of the acquisition, however, is still less than that of what would have been a mid-to-late first-round pick who would come into the league in 2014 with no NFL experience.
Even at a position where players get old and lose value quickly, Richardson is young and full of potential. He gives the Colts a true between-the-tackles runner who also has the potential to make plays on the perimeter, and he should help open up the passing game even more for Luck and his receivers.
Continuing the Trend Away from Running Backs as Top Draft Picks
When an organization drafts a player with the No. 3 overall pick, it expects that player to immediately help the team win games and eventually emerge as a star and focal player. In less than two full seasons, however, the Browns determined that Richardson was not the right player to help them win more games going forward.
The trade may say as much about the position the Browns drafted at No. 3 overall as it does the player. The league is gradually trending away from running backs being top draft picks.
The 2013 NFL draft was the first in 50 years in which no running back was selected in the first round of the draft. This says more about the draft class’ subpar talent at the position than it does positional draft trends, considering Richardson went so high just one year earlier, but it could very well be a sign of things to come.
Running backs seemed to achieve peak draft value in 2005, when Ronnie Brown, Cedric Benson and Cadillac Williams were all selected as top-five picks. In eight drafts since, however, there have only been three top-five selections at running back and only five total top-10 running back selections.
Brown, Benson and Williams never made the impact on their teams to warrant their lofty draft selections. Neither did Reggie Bush with the New Orleans Saints nor Richardson with the Browns, while Darren McFadden’s career has largely been a disappointment with the Oakland Raiders.
Drafting a running back early can certainly pay off, as it did for the Minnesota Vikings and their selection of reigning NFL MVP Adrian Peterson with the No. 7 overall pick in the 2007 draft.
That said, late-round and undrafted gems have seemingly emerged as often as they ever have at the running back position in recent years. Additionally, many teams no longer rely on a feature back to carry the ball 20 or more times per game, as quarterbacks are both passing and running the ball as much as they ever have in NFL history.
Running backs were at one time second only to quarterbacks in popularity as No. 1 overall draft picks, but the philosophy has shifted significantly in recent years. The Heckert-Holmgren brain trust may have been a believer in the more traditional philosophy of drafting a feature back early, but the Richardson trade indicates that the Lombardi-Banner regime falls more in line with the philosophy of not investing major resources into the running back position.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL Draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.