Common sense tells us that the NFL Draft begins with the Cleveland Browns and the 4th overall pick. Quarterbacks Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III will go one/two and unless the Minnesota Vikings want Christian Ponder to die, left tackle Matt Kalil will go 3rd. Ironically, Cleveland was sitting in a similar scenario last Spring’s draft – with the top 5 expected to be Cam Newton, Von Miller, Marcell Dareus, A.J. Green, and Patrick Peterson and the Browns being the wildcard at 6. Once again, all eyes are on Holmgren and company.
The most popular choice for Cleveland right now is Alabama running back Trent Richardson.
Why wouldn’t he be?
Peyton Hillis left in free agency for Kansas City, Montario Hardesty can’t stay healthy, and former Packer Brandon Jackson hasn’t played in over a year with a turf toe injury. The Browns have a history of great running backs with the likes of Jim Brown, Marion Motley, and Leroy Kelly donning orange and brown ages ago in what feels like just yesterday to Cleveland fans who have blacked out the last couple of decades. Just the idea of a running back is attractive to the blue collar people of Cleveland, Ohio. Heck, 3 yards and a cloud of dust lived 140 miles south on I-71 at Ohio State. The Midwest loves its power running game and it has treated them well historically.
And we haven’t even begun talking about Trent Richardson. He is arguably the best running back prospect since Adrian Peterson, some would say even better. Low center of gravity, natural change of direction, ability to stop and go, churns through contact, holds the ball high and tight – pick a running back cliché from a hat and it likely fits Richardson. On top of that, he’s an every down back with ability to catch out of the backfield and a willingness to pass protect that not many NFL feature backs possess.
Turn in the card, right?
Well, not exactly.
For starters, he plays running back. Y’know, the position that gets smashed near every time he has the ball. One bad hit and there goes nearly 20 million fully guaranteed dollars to the sideline for who knows how long. Here’s an interesting list for you to look over:
Jamaal Charles, Darren McFadden, Matt Forte, Peyton Hillis, Ahmad Bradshaw, Tim Hightower, Jahvid Best, DeMarco Murray, Mark Ingram (Richardson’s former running mate at Alabama), Mikel LeShoure, Ryan Williams, Alex Greene.
No, that’s not a list of the best running backs in the NFL – it’s a list of notable running backs whose 2011 seasons were hindered (and in some cases completely derailed) by injuries.
As a matter of fact, the final 5 guys on that list were all rookies. Adding up the total snaps and carries for every running back taken in the first 3 rounds of the 2011 NFL Draft (the aforementioned 5 plus Stevan Ridley, Daniel Thomas, and Shane Vereen) gets you 1199 snaps, 555 carries – or about 150 snaps, 69 carries each. The NFL is a completely different animal from college football in terms of speed/power and many of these young players’ bodies are not used to it. And this year wasn’t a rarity having so many new backs get injured – just ask Ben Tate and Montario Hardesty how their rookie seasons went.
If Trent Richardson gets injured, I won’t say “tough luck” – I’ll say “business as usual.” Similar to breaking the strings on a tennis racquet, with the beating that the RB position takes, it is about when the injury happens, not if. Richardson had his knee scoped recently, how long until he needs his next oil change?
Speaking of a beating, Cleveland plays in the AFC North. That’s the same division as the Pittsburgh Steelers, Cincinnati Bengals, and Baltimore Ravens – the 2nd, 8th, and 10th ranked run defenses in the NFL. They hit, and they hit hard. Is targeting the strength of interdivisional rivals the way to go? Since 2003, Cleveland has had one QB pass for over 3,000 yards. That year also happens to be the only time in that stretch Cleveland has won more than 6 games. Whether it’s correlation or causation is up for interpretation but it’s noteworthy nonetheless.
Fact is, when Anthony Davis is swatting everything that comes in his direction, do you force the ball into the paint or do you try and attack the defense on the perimeter?
The Steelers, Ravens, and Bengals defenses are clearly throwing down “rock” in RoShamBo, and the Cleveland Browns know it. Even though Trent Richardson is one shiny looking rock, shouldn’t Cleveland try throwing down “paper” for once? Why not change the game rather than conforming by the rules of the AFC North?
Lastly, let’s take a look at the landscape in Cleveland. Are they built to be a power running team? As one of the smartest guys in the business Greg Cosell says, the running back can make the OL. If that’s the case and Trent Richardson lands with the Browns, he has quite a bit of work to do. The Pro Football Focus run blocking ratings for the projected starters are not very encouraging. The left side of the line is occupied by Joe Thomas (-6.2 run block rating) and Jason Pinkston (-14.6 run block rating). Owen Marecic had a disappointing rookie season according to most Clevelanders, partly because of their affinity for the departed Lawrence Vickers and party because they expected better from a 4th round pick fullback. And then the tight end quartet of Ben Watson, Alex Smith, Jordan Cameron, and Evan Moore (if you call him a TE) doesn’t inspire much confidence either, as they all graded negatively at run blocking. And this all goes without mentioning that the right tackle spot is vacant at the moment. Unless the plan is to run directly behind center Alex Mack, this is a team that just isn’t currently built to be pigs.
In fact, someone who argues that the Alabama offensive line (which also allowed Crimson Tide backup running back Eddie Lacey to average 7.1 yards per carry) can pave a better path than Cleveland wouldn’t be quite as crazy as you think – as long as it’s behind future early draft picks Barrett Jones, D.J. Fluker, and Chance Warmack.
There are a few other generalities that I can shape as reasons why Cleveland shouldn’t take Trent Richardson:
“Today’s NFL is a passing league, a running back can’t keep up with the scoring of quarterbacks”
“A running back doesn’t need to be taken in the top 5, or even the 1st round in order to be productive”
“You don’t need an elite RB to win the Super Bowl”
But those aren’t full-proof theories and I would be naïve to preach them as such.
If Cleveland drafts Trent Richardson, several things will happen:
- Richardson will smile, possibly cry
- He’ll hug/kiss everyone at his table
- Walk onto the stage and shake hands with Roger Goodell
- Hold up a Browns jersey
- Draftniks will say “I told you so”
- Tons of Cleveland Browns fans will buy his jersey and cheer for him unconditionally
Then, reality will hit: Cleveland has drafted a power running back to run behind a weak offensive line against the strong run defenses of the AFC North.
Cleveland fans operate mostly out of fear and loathing for themselves. The franchise passed on LaDanian Tomlinson in 2001 then Adrian Peterson in 2007 and many fans have been kicking themselves ever since. For that same reason (fear) many loyal fans are afraid of taking a quarterback because they don’t want to be burned again by a Tim Couch or Brady Quinn. Many Clevelanders feel that the franchise can’t afford to not take Trent Richardson so that as least they have something to flaunt to other teams. As a result, they’ll ignore the harsh reality of the situation and the massive amount of risk involved for a team that doesn’t have the luxury to take that risk.
It’s worth stating, Trent Richardson won’t be a wasted pick by any means. But it’s not going to be all sunshine and daisies in Cleveland. He will be the focus of defenses with the ability to stop him. The LSU defense is not even close to the worst defense in the NFL.
For Cleveland to begin winning, they’ll need to solve the QB position, they’ll need to upgrade the WR corps, and they’ll need to fix the holes on a leaky defense. All of this begs the question – can the Cleveland Browns afford to spend the pick on a running back if a team comes knocking for the 4th overall pick?
Cleveland, you’re on the clock. Still ready to turn in the card with Trent Richardson’s name on it?