On draft day 2012, the Cleveland Browns and their old front office led by Mike Holmgren and Tom Heckert, traded picks in the 4th (118), 5th (139), and 7th (211) rounds in order to swap spots with the Minnesota Vikings (switching from 4th overall to 3rd). Keep in mind, the Browns still ended up with two 4th round picks, one 5th round pick and two 7th round picks (compensatory) after trading away the three picks to swap with Minnesota. With the #3 overall selection of the 2012 draft, the Cleveland Browns selected running back Trent Richardson out of Alabama.
18 games later (17 played by Richardson) the Browns and their new front office led by Alec Scheiner and Michael Lombardi, traded Trent Richardson to the Indianapolis Colts for their 2014 1st round pick (likely in the high teens if I had to put a guess on it). Now fans, pundits and friends alike are calling foul and saying how bad the Cleveland Browns front office is for trading away their best offensive weapon. But, I completely disagree and I think that Lombardi has properly valued his situation, personnel and future and decided to jump on an offer made by a team that needed a running back.
I am going to focus on the Browns, but my approval of the Browns trading Richardson away does not mean that it doesn’t provide value for the Colts and greatly increase their chances of making the playoffs because they have a gaping hole at RB right now and are a team that can properly use the likely shelf life of a 23-year-old running back.
About ten minutes after I found out about the Richardson trade I got a text that said, “Cleveland gm. What was he thinking?” This was from someone who’s opinion I respect on sports but I couldn’t have disagreed more. I am obviously right because I’m smarter than anyone and everyone (kidding, deep breaths). Here is why I think Lombardi made the right decision for his team.
1. Trent Richardson plays running back
The modern NFL is built around a passing game with 3, 4 and 5 wide sets where running backs and the running game is set up by the pass, not vice versa (with a few obvious exceptions). The value of the running back position has plummeted since the offensive revolution of the passing game and Richardson is unfortunately the prototypical grinder type of running back that has become even less valuable than other styles of like scatbacks and receiving backs.
2. Running back shelf life
No this is not scientifically studied by more nor did I do the research to figure this out, but we can all agree the average running back has a career that spans their early to mid 20’s with the occasional back being relevant to his VERY early 30’s. Richardson is a 5’9″, 228 lbs plodder that likes to go through people and bang in the trenches. While he is a solid running back, the chances of him being relevant for another 3-4 years are not strong. It isn’t impossible and very well might happen, but if you’re building a team with a soon-to=be 30 year old, second year QB, and a young running back, you can’t get the time-table wrong because the shelf life of both is likely 3-4 seasons if things go well. If one of the two doesn’t pan out, not to mention the lack of a game changing pass catcher that must be timed to the primes of their old-inexperienced QB and their young-high mileage RB.
3. 2014 NFL Draft
I love the draft, but I’m not draft expert, amateur scout or t.v. pundit that feigns draft knowledge, however I am hearing good things about the 2014 draft including possible #1 pick, DE Jadeveon Clowney (famous for this). But, he has been atop rankings ever since he came out of high school as the #1 ranked incoming freshman. On top of that, there is Louisville QB Teddy Bridgewater who may be the best QB coming into the draft in 2014, to go along with guys like Marcus Mariota and the ever-enigmatic Johnny Manziel. With their pick likely in the top 5, they can also use a mid 1st round pick on another playmaker on either side of the ball.
4. The New All-Sport Strategy
Tanking. The big word lately, both in a good and bad context is tanking. Teams in the NBA have brought it almost to a science year to year and made it an acceptable way to spend the season, even by your fans opinions. The MLB has seen some of the most innovative tanking in recent years with teams like the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros trying different tanking tact. The Cubs have decided to sign rebounding players on 1 and 2-year contracts in hopes of flipping them at the trade deadline to sign even more assets. The Astros have decided to purge their major league roster of all high-priced talent bringing their overall payroll to less than the number of players per million (just over $21 million between 25 players prior to September call-ups).
Now the Browns have looked at the cards they were dealt from Holmgren and Heckert and have determined they will NOT be competing in the near future. So they capitalized on their biggest and most valuable asset by trading him for a 1st round pick. Rookie wage scale contracts have made 1st round picks even more valuable than they used to be. The salary cap flexibility that not having to re-sign Trent Richardson in a year or two provides the Browns while they attempt to reset (again) will be invaluable when they find the right players who have a much higher chance of syncing their primes to give them a chance at the playoffs year after year.
Moral of the story, the Browns gave up a second year player with high upside but likely downside and a short prime while acquiring something with value that can’t be measured yet. It is a calculated risk by the front office, but if you believe in Bayes’ theorem (basically you need to constantly update your predictions with every single piece of new information you receive and if you believe in something over 50% then your best course of action is to run with it) then you can see that Lombardi believes there is a higher than 50% chance that Trent Richardson will not provide the Browns with the ability to make the playoffs which is what matters. Richardson could very well be good and still not provide value to the Browns, much like Steven Jackson did with the Rams for most of his career. If the Browns continue to miss the playoffs but keep Richardson, he offers almost zero net value over whoever will play running back in the meantime while the Browns continue to miss the playoffs.
Well done taking the less traveled road and admitting defeat Browns. Getting a first round pick for a running back is no small feat either and the negotiators are commended. Most running backs despite talent fetch no better than a mid round pick anymore. This is the right decision for the Browns, both now and in the future. Do you want to see another running back waste away on a 4-5 win team for the prime of their career and then see that team have trouble letting go because they are a good and loyal player but having them is actually KEEPING them from getting the top picks they need? I sure don’t. The Browns most recent rebuild is in full effect.