Before the team decided to ditch its marquee running back in a stunning trade, there was, for the first time in a while, hope in Cleveland. Sports Illustrated picked the Browns to finish 7-9 in 2013, a two-game improvement over their 2012 season. ESPN said Cleveland would be the AFC North’s most improved team. A new coach with offensive smarts, a first-rounder pundits adored (Barkevious Mingo), an offseason’s worth of study and workouts for 2012 rookies Josh Gordon, Brandon Weeden, Trent Richardson. Maybe it’s not a playoff spot, but in a weak AFC? Watchable December games seemed in the offing.
We’re now but two weeks into the season, and all of that optimism has apparently wafted away in the first frosty breezes off Lake Erie. The Browns announced two moves yesterday: Journeyman Brian Hoyer would be the team’s starting quarterback at Minnesota, and Trent Richardson, the third overall pick in last year’s draft, would head to Indianapolis in exchange for the Colts’ first-rounder in 2014. Richardson was the team’s only star. Cleveland is, as Cleveland gets, catatonic. Bobby Rainey, who has never carried in an NFL game, will likely join Hoyer in the starting backfield on Sunday.
But there’s a good chance the Browns actually made the right move. Among the 88 first- and second-round running backs taken since 1990, with 200 or more rushing attempts in their first two seasons, Richardson’s 3.54 yards-per-carry average ranks 76th. (This despite a Browns run-blocking unit that Pro Football Focus graded No. 14, or slightly above average, last year.) His company at the bottom of the list? Mostly busts, both of older vintages (Curtis Enis, Ki-Jana Carter, Darrell Thompson, J.J. Johnson, Rashaan Salaam, Ron Dayne) and newer (Donald Brown, LenDale White, Daniel Thomas, Mark Ingram). Running backs — especially those who played against top-tier college talent, like Richardson did at Alabama — are supposed to enter the league near the tops of their game and tail off with age. When one starts off poorly, like Richardson did, it’s a bad sign.
Richardson might still become a fine player. Thomas Jones, Reggie Bush, Ricky Williams, and Matt Forte all rebounded from so-so career starts — they’re near him at the bottom of the list — to wind up with four-plus-yard-per-carry career averages. And while the Colts’ offensive line can’t match the Browns’, Indy’s far more reliable passing attack prompts caution in opposing front sevens. That means more lanes for Richardson.
But he plays the most commoditized position in the NFL, and the position which sees its stars deteriorate fastest. He has to date played that position with little of the explosiveness that made him a top-three pick, and he has already consumed one of the few affordable years guaranteed to NFL teams by rookie contracts. To turn all of that into what should be a mid-first-round pick? Smile, Cleveland. It really could be worse.