The Cleveland Browns pulled off one of the most shocking midseason moves one may ever see, sending Trent Richardson to the Indianapolis Colts after just 17 games in exchange for a first-round pick. Richardson will team with Andrew Luck in Indianapolis to give the Colts two of the top three overall picks from the 2012 NFL Draft. While the Browns are positioning themselves for the future, it seems that the Colts believe they can win big immediately.
There is some debate about Richardson's talent. He had considerable hype entering his rookie season after finishing as a Heisman finalist at Alabama, but he averaged a pedestrian 3.6 yards per carry last year. Injuries compromised his effectiveness as well. Richardson did an excellent job as a receiver, catching 51 passes for 367 yards, but he didn't display his trademark speed and power often enough for many fans. Of course, he had next to no help from the passing game.
Richardson will get a fresh start with the Colts. He will suit up this weekend against the San Francisco 49ers to give fans their first glimpse of his potential within a young, high-ceiling offense. The challenge will be stiff, but Richardson is well-suited for an offense that wants to run first to set up devastating play-action passes. Win or lose, Sunday's game won't determine Richardson's fate as an NFL running back, but it may give us a pretty good idea what the future holds.
There are two schools of thought:
Trent Richardson is overrated
Numbers suggest that Richardson was ineffective last season, even among running backs who were also hamstrung by weak passing attacks. Four other running backs recorded at least 227 carries while playing on an offense that threw for fewer than 3,500 yards with a passer rating lower than 80 during the 2012 season. All were better on a per-play basis than Richardson.
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For laughs, let's throw in Maurice Jones-Drew and his 86 carries at 4.8 yards per carry among the names of running backs who had more success running the ball on bad passing offenses. Having Brandon Weeden as his quarterback likely didn't help Richardson, but it shouldn't have been insurmountable. Some of the players who outperformed him are elite talents, but as a former No. 3 overall pick Richardson was expected to perform to similar standards.
Can the Browns' offensive line be blamed? Perhaps, though few would argue that the Miami Dolphins, New York Jets or Tennessee Titans had strong front walls last season. Using the metric put together by Football Outsiders, the Browns were the 20th-best run-blocking team in the league last season, putting them ahead of the Dolphins and Titans, and just one spot behind the Kansas City Chiefs.
Perhaps Richardson will be the game-changing runner that head coach Chuck Pagano desperately craves. He certainly looked like one at Alabama. In his short career as a pro, he has gotten off to a slow start. There isn't much evidence that Richardson will improve on the 3.9 yards per carry that Vick Ballard and Donald Brown both managed last season behind an offensive line that ranked 26th in run blocking last season, according to Football Outsiders.
Trent Richardson is underrated
Of course, the Richardson does much more than just run the ball. He was a very effective pass catcher and blocker while he was with the Browns. His 51 receptions ranked seventh among NFL running backs, and only one of the players ahead of him, Ray Rice, had more yards rushing. Richardson will also help keep Luck's jersey clean in the pocket. ESPN's stats department found this handy tidbit:
Since the start of 2012 with Richardson on the field, Browns quarterbacks were sacked on 4.8 percent of dropbacks. With Richardson off the field, Browns quarterbacks were sacked on 9.4 percent of dropbacks.
Richardson's pass-blocking ability will be useful to a team whose quarterback threw the ball 627 times last season. Per ESPN, Luck has been sacked on 6.2 percent of his dropbacks since the start of the 2012 season, which is the ninth-highest rate in the NFL.
Richardson's skillset is arriving in Indianapolis at the perfect time for the Colts. The team recently lost Ballard and tight end Dwayne Allen for the season, the former the team's leading rusher and the latter one of team's best blockers and short-to-intermediate receiving threats. The Richardson signing could mitigate the losses of both players in one fell swoop.
Most tantalizing to the Colts may be Richardson's potential to rev up the Colts' play-action passing game. Doug Farrar of Sports Illustrated found that the Colts are running more play-action this season with worse results. Luck is averaging 8.1 yards per attempt on play-action this season, compared to 9.23 in 2012. If Richardson is effective in the running game, he has the potential to make a good Colts offense much better according to Matt Grecco at Colts blog Stampede Blue:
With an effective Richardson in the backfield, teams will bite on the play-action, making Luck's job of finding any one of his numerous receivers that much easier. He was very good last year, he was very good at Stanford, and he needs to be much better this year, and in years to come. If Richardson runs the ball well, teams will have to account for the play-fake, and Luck will throw all over them.
A serious test
This Sunday's matchup up between the Colts and the 49ers is arguably the must-watch game of the weekend. Not only will Richardson be making his Colts debut, but Luck and tight end Coby Fleener will be reuniting with their former head coach at Stanford, Jim Harbaugh. The game is not expected to be close, however, with the 49ers entering the weekend as 11.5-point favorites at home. Despite a blowout loss to the Seattle Seahawks last weekend, oddsmakers still consider the 49ers one of the best teams in football.
A big reason is defense, particularly the 49ers' front seven. San Francisco gave up over 100 yards rushing just six times last season. Two of those instances came against the Seahawks, however, and the unit struggled again against the Seattle last week, giving up 172 yards on the ground. Marshawn Lynch's bruising running style is akin to Richardson's, so perhaps Richardson can have similar success.
If he does, the Colts will have a good chance to cover the spread and potentially win. Play-action will open, and Luck may then light up a secondary that has been a relative weakness this season. That's a big if, given the 49ers' success defending the run against teams that aren't the Seahawks, but Richardson is a potentially special back who should be capable of a special performance.
Richardson will play extensively Sunday. Pagano emphasized the point, saying that Richardson's workload will be "as much as he can handle" and adding that the Colts "did not bring him in here to be a water boy." Richardson's performance won't definitively end the debate over his value as an NFL player, but he should have plenty of opportunities to steer the direction of the conversation one way or the other.