I think Trent Richardson will go extremely high in this April's NFL draft. I see him as easily one of the top 10 players available, I think he'll be a great running back in the NFL, and he reminds me more of Jamal Lewis than Cedric Benson. Recently, experts like Mike Mayock have agreed that Richardson is pretty damn good.
I still don't think we should draft him.
I'd like to highlight some of the thinking that goes into my desire to pass on Richardson. It boils down to one word: value.
Value I: What are you "spending"?
We would have to spend the fourth overall pick on RIchardson. 4th overall isn't just another draft pick, it's a potentially franchise-altering pick, and it carries weight that no other pick we currently possess does.
Cutting a former top-10 pick isn't an easy thing for competitors like coaches and GMs to do, and former top draft choices carry that legacy throughout their careers--especially if they play well. Once Richardson's rookie contract would be up, we would be forced to sign him for a record-breaking deal and have a huge cap number invested in an aging running back. Or we could let a star player walk. Not to mention that in 2011, top tier RBs were overpaid by 50%***. Does 6 million/year sound like the kind of deal a former 4th overall pick who has performed well would sign?
Value is especially important at the very top of the draft because of the plethora of alternate choices available. If you consider classic coachspeak line of "its not just who you take, its who you don't take," you are not taking hundreds of other players with the 4th overall pick.
The cost of this pick simply cannot be understated.
Where can you find good players?
If you look at the rounds in which good players are chosen at a given position it can tell you a few things. Looking at Quarterback, the good ones historically are taken in the first round. The same goes with cornerback.
But if you look at running back, you'll see players like Frank Gore (3rd), LeSean McCoy (2nd), Ray Rice (2nd), Arian Foster (Undrafted), Matt Forte (3rd), Jamaal Charles (3rd), Ahmad Bradshaw (7th), Michael Turner (5th), and all are doing more than getting the job done.
This doesn't tell us that we can just draft any guy in the 3rd round and he'll magically end up being that good, but it does tell us that good running backs can be found later on. Good quarterbacks, cornerbacks, and left tackles, not so much. If you want a great player at one of those positions, you almost assuredly have to pick him in the first round.
Value II: What are you getting for the "money"?
Disparity in talent between top of the NFL and average
At any given position, NFL starters are only going to be so good and they are only going to be so bad. At some positions, the disparity is enormous; a pass rusher like DeMarcus Ware, for example, is much better than a starter like Jayme Mitchell. At other positions (like punter) there isn't a whole lot of dropoff from the top all the way to the bottom.
Even if you can draft the best punter in the league, so what?
There simply isn't a world of difference athletically between good NFL running backs. While Adrian Peterson is a great player and a probable hall of famer, how much better is he than LeSean McCoy? Ray Rice? Maurice Jones Drew? I can probably list a dozen backs who aren't quite as good as Peterson, but are able to deliver only slightly less production.
While there certainly are positions with less disparity in talent between the top and bottom (punter), no running back we are seeing right now is truly able to take over a game by himself. There simply aren't human beings alive today who are physically capable of being able to run over and around NFL defenses like they used to. We aren't living in an era when we'll see another Jim Brown who is that much bigger, that much faster, and able to run the ball that much better than the next guy.
Talent over other available
This should factor in not only other players available in the draft, but also players that typically come available in free agency and trades. For example, it is extremely rare for a franchise QB to be found anywhere at all, and once teams do find them they typically don't let them go. In recent years I can only think of Jay Cutler as a relatively young franchise QB to switch teams. Meanwhile, it seems like very good OGs and WRs hit the market every year.
Obviously, other players available in the draft and their relative talent levels should be considered. There appears to be a huge dropoff at the QB position after Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III--which is exactly why the St. Louis Rams were able to get so much for the 2nd overall pick (and the last superstar QB draft prospect).
I just don't see so much of a dropoff between Richardson and a more easily-assembled backfield by committee to warrant the pick. He's good, but how much more than Lamar Miller, David Wilson, Isaiah Pead, or Doug Martin does he give us?
Length of career
While it shouldn't be the primary consideration, the potential length of a player's career should come into play when making a selection. You don't even know if the guy is going to be good yet, but you at least want an idea of a best-case scenario.
A quarterback can be "your guy" for 10-15 years, as can a lineman. Running backs have relatively short careers in the NFL, and even shorter periods of time when they "carry the load" and do it well.
Running backs have the shortest average career length in the NFL. If you see that stat being heavily influenced by training camp roster filler, I'd agree with you. But I would also point you to the rule of 370. While not a magical barrier of 370 carries, the "rule of 370" is statistical analysis that reinforces common sense: relatively small guys who get hit hard by bigger guys tend to wear down and wear out. A rough analysis also details that RBs peak (and decline) earlier in their careers than other offensive players.
370 carries/year is 23.125 carries/game. With a 4.5 YPC average, that's just over 100 yards per game.
Value III: How much is your "purchase" worth to you?
Current roster composition
Obviously, the more the Browns' roster lacks talent at a given position, the more "impact" a draft choice at that position would have. This is the one area that I think makes Richardson more valuable to us. We need offensive talent, and we could really use another running back.
Still, other positions on the team are clearly more lacking than RB. With the release of Tony Pashos, RT became a pressing need and probably the most urgent one on the entire depth chart. Yet, because of the reasons cited in the rest of this article I do not believe RT would be a wise pick at 4th overall.
How much a position impacts the game can vary widely. Quarterbacks touch the ball every play. Monster defensive tackles and other "unblockable" players can shred your entire gameplan.
How much impact does a running back bring to a team? I would say about an average amount. Sure, they can break big plays now and then, but unless you call 200 yards of total offense a good day no individual RB will be the engine that makes your offense go. Walter Peyton had the most all purpose yards per game of any RB in NFL history,and he only averaged 114.7 per game. Even Barry Sanders averaged under 120 total yards/game.
The Browns simply do not want to be a running team. They are comfortable with the passing game, they've hired coaches who like to pass, and the organizations who's success we'd like to model (the Green Bay Packers and the Philadelphia Eagles) both pass the ball a lot.
Yes, Mike Holmgren ran the ball a lot with Shaun Alexander (who is the poster boy for the rule of 370, by the way). Yes, "the" West Coast Offense can be a run-first offense. But Holmgren didn't draft Alexander with a top-5 pick, and he didn't even start him in his rookie season.
We want a back like Ahman Green (3rd round), LeSean McCoy (2nd), or Brian Westbrook (3rd). We don't necessarily want a back that can pound the rock between the tackles, we are looking for a back to run effectively but also to be effective in the passing game. Spending such a high pick on the downhill running of Richardson simply wouldn't be a good match. We just don't want or need a back that good at pounding the rock.
Putting it all together
When examining the combination of the franchise-level of importance of the 4th overall pick, the availability of other good running backs, the lack of extreme difference in talent between the top running backs in the league and other good ones, and the short length of careers for running backs, I can only determine that drafting Trent Richardson is not worth it.
If there are people out there who believe Richardson is an all-time talent who is just tremendously better than other prospects in this draft, I can see why they would want us to take him. But the lack of value at the fourth spot in the draft cannot be debated.
***though I think he clings to his "kooky made-up" stats too closely, this is solid analysis by Burke. I tend to believe total yardage is actually a good measure of a back, but that debate is best saved for another time.