Week 3 got off to a thundering start on Wednesday when the Cleveland Browns sent running back Trent Richardson to the Indianapolis Colts in exchange for a 2014 first-round pick. Big-name, big-time trades are a rarity in the NFL, due in no small part to the punitive salary-cap treatment of accelerated signing bonus recognition.
It's rare that we get one quite so meaty to dive into, even if this one might not have as much bottom-line impact in 2013 or beyond as it might seem at first blush. So let's dive in!
The Value of a Running Back
The proper lens through which to view this trade, or any other running back-related topic in the NFL, is this simple categorization of starting running backs in the NFL in 2013:
- 31 players whose fortunes are primarily determined by their OL, offensive scheme and the score of the game
And even Peterson might not have fully evolved into homo superior last season, as his 2.7 YPC average on Carries 2 through 43 this season would seem to indicate. While open-field burners like C.J. Spiller and Jamaal Charles, juke machines like Shady McCoy, and ferocious hammers like Marshawn Lynch are all badasses in their own right, running backs just can't make the kind of impact on the game that other positions can. Two stats that are tremendously important to understanding success in the NFL bear this out:
1) Per ESPN's "Football Scientist" K.C. Joyner, over large sample sizes just about every running back, from star to scrub, averages fewer than two yards a carry when one of the offensive linemen or an in-line tight end blows a block at the line of scrimmage. There are big differences between backs when they get GOOD blocking, but more than any other, this stat illustrates how much their ability to generate a successful play depends on the guys up front.
2) According to Cold Hard Football Facts, the statistic of Passer Rating Differential -- the difference between a team's offensive passer rating and the passer rating that its defense allows -- dwarfs every other measure when it comes to predicting ultimate success in the NFL. Through the 2010 season, almost 60 percent of NFL champions ranked No. 1 or No. 2 in that statistic, and a full 90 percent ranked in the top five. Whether you're throwing it or preventing the other guy from throwing it, the bottom line is that the NFL is -- and has been -- a passing league first and foremost.
So it was just as silly for the Colts to spend a first-rounder to acquire Richardson in 2013 as it was for the Browns to do so in 2012, right? Not necessarily. This trade had some interesting dynamics on both sides.
The value for the Colts
The obvious question for Indy is how much closer this gets them to making, and advancing in, the playoffs. The answer is likely "closer, but maybe not a first-round pick's worth."
Richardson will energize the run game, no doubt. He's also a capable receiver who can serve as a solid outlet for Andrew Luck, despite rarely converting his catches into big yardage. But the Colts' issues are along both sides of the line of scrimmage (and at corner and linebacker, to be honest). Indianapolis got more social media mileage from Jim Irsay than value for signings like Gosder Cherilus, Erik Walden and Ricky Jean-Francois in the offseason. Their best free agent addition, Donald Thomas, has already landed on IR. This move probably doesn't draw them even with the Texans this year, though it could help in the battle against teams like Miami and Kansas City for the Wildcard.
The biggest short-term benefit may simply be in helping to insure Luck's health. He was under siege in the first two games of the season. A pass-heavy game plan behind a suspect line is a good way to get some chips knocked off your franchise building block. A runner who can gain a couple of extra yards after contact and keep a defense honest isn't going to revolutionize the offense, but he could go a long way toward keeping Luck out of the situations that have let defenders tee off on him so far.
In 2014, that first-rounder will be gone, but they'll still have a high-quality back who's signed to an affordable deal for a couple more seasons. That's not tremendous value, but it's not bad, either.
While those outcomes may be well and good, is there a process question at hand? You never like the specter of an owner who has demonstrated next-to-zero real football knowledge getting too involved in these kinds of things. Wacky offseason Tweets are one thing, but public demands to PROTECT MY QB AT ALL COSTS followed shortly by a big trade -- again, a rarity in the NFL -- make you wonder. Hopefully for the Colts, this and all other football decisions are in the hands of the football folks.
The value for the Browns
Going on the theory that first-round picks are valuable commodities, this looks to be a good move for Cleveland. Of course, it's easily argued that you're spinning your wheels if you're spending high first-round picks and then quickly flipping them for (likely) middle- or lower-first-round picks 18 games in. But this new Cleveland regime had no ties to that decision and, quite likely, little hope for a banner season in 2013 even with Richardson in the fold. With that 2012 first-rounder a sunk cost, the Browns made an aggressive move to get better starting in 2014.
What about the value Cleveland gave up? Richardson was by far its best offensive skill player, and while the Browns' offense wasn't a rolling ball of butcher knives with him, it could be truly ghastly with him out of the picture. But there's value and then there's value. If you take the view that real value only gets created when you make the playoffs, there's zero value lost in changing your season outlook from 6-10 to 4-12.
Quite a bit of future value could be gained through present pain, and while they'll deny this as a motivation, the Browns are now squarely in the go down for Clowney/troubles for Bridgewater sweepstakes. Two first-rounders -- one of them likely a top-five pick -- should be enough to land one of those gentlemen should Cleveland so desire, even if it means trading up with one of 2013's true nightmare teams like Oakland or Jacksonville.
Should Cleveland decide to go a different route at the top, it can still land two impact players and then pick up a good, competent back in the third round or so -- just as the nature of the modern NFL dictates the Browns should have done in 2012.