Devalued Village

Posted Apr 13, 2012

Trent Richardson is the best of the running backs in this year's draft class, but the Alabama star is discovering that the NFL doesn't covet players at his position the way it used to.

The opinions and analysis contained in this feature represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the thoughts and opinions of the Seahawks' coaching staff and personnel department.

BLOG: 2012 NFL Draft: Running backs | A few moments with: LaMichael James

Stymied in their attempt to trade into the second spot in the NFL Draft so they could select Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Robert Griffin III, the Cleveland Browns have shifted to Plan C: Surrounding incumbent QB Colt McCoy with a better supporting cast.

At least that’s the word from Mike Holmgren, the Browns’ president and former coach of the Seahawks, and Tom Heckert, the Browns’ GM.


This is the third in a series of articles previewing the three-day NFL Draft. Today: The running backs. Tuesday: The receivers. Previously: The Seahawks’ take on the draft and the quarterbacks.

The Draft
Round 1: Thursday, April 26, 5 p.m.
Rounds 2-3: Friday, April 27, 4 p.m.
Rounds 4-7: Saturday, April 28. 9 a.m.

Seahawks picks
First round: No. 12 overall
Second round: No. 43
Third round: No. 75
Fourth round: No. 106
Fifth round: No pick; to Bills in Marshawn Lynch trade
Sixth round: No. 181
Seventh round: Own pick, No. 219, traded to Lions for Tyler Polumbus; No. 225, from Raiders in Aaron Curry trade

Seahawks Draft party: Thursday, April 26, CenturyLink Field Event Center, 4 p.m. More information available here.

“We do think Colt has a big ceiling,” Heckert recently told the News-Herald in Northern Ohio. “It’s my job to get better players surrounding him. After the season, we said we have to protect him better. We have to be able to run the football, which we did at times last year. If you look at the games when we ran and protected well, Colt played very well.

“Colt has proven he can play in this league. As coach Holmgren said, another year in the system and we get him better players, he has a chance to be really good.”

And even though the St. Louis Rams have traded that second pick in the first round on April 26 to the Washington Redskins, the Browns do hold the fourth selection and should have their choice between the best running back in the draft – Alabama’s Trent Richardson; and the best wide receiver in this year’s draft class – Oklahoma State’s Justin Blackmon.

And the pick should be?

“The easiest thing to do is turn around and hand the ball to somebody 300 times a year,” Jon Gruden, the former NFL coach turned analyst for ESPN, said this week.

So Richardson it should be?

“Everybody says don’t take a running back, we can get those guys in the fifth, sixth and seventh round,” Gruden added. “You go find Trent Richardson in the fifth or sixth or seventh round. He’s a beast.”

But Richardson also comes with some beastly doubts: Is any running back worth the No. 4 pick in a league where passing has become the preferred mode of moving the ball – and the chains?

The position has become “devalued,” as Bucky Brooks puts it. Brooks, the former NFL wide receiver and scout for the Seahawks, is an analyst for Part of the he’s-not-worthy predicament is the increase in passing around the league, but it also has to do with the short shelf life for backs. Just how many 300-carry seasons does one back have?

Last season, there were two 300-carry backs in the league, and each led his conference in rushing – Maurice Jones-Drew of the Jacksonville Jaguars (343 carries for 1,606 yards) and Michael Turner of the Atlanta Falcons (301 for 1,340). That’s down from seven 300-carry backs in 2010, which was down from 10 in 2005 – when the Seahawks’ Shaun Alexander led the NFL in carries (370) and rushing yards (1,880).

None of this is Richardson’s fault, of course. But he and the other backs in this draft could be the ones who pay the price – literally.

“I’d say the value of a running back is not the same, and that’s crazy to us,” Richardson said at the NFL Scouting Combine when asked about the dime-a-dozen perception of his position. “It bothers me a lot, because we’re getting pounded on every down and when it comes down to it, to be successful, you really have to have a mindset that I know I’m going in the first round.”

But Richardson is the only back in this draft who actually knows that. If not at No. 4 to the Browns, who lost leading rusher Peyton Hillis in free agency, than surely to another back-needy team.

“That’s a big issue with some football players that aren’t really strong mentally,” Richardson said. “All the pounding that we do – even in practice – they get to hit on us and we can’t cut them. Or they come at full speed, and it takes a toll on us and I really think that we all work more than that.

“Because when it comes down to it, everyone needs a running back and they have to use that running back.”

Even if that back is being used less and less. But it’s not like the evolution of the game is going to make running backs eventually become an endangered species, or teeter on extinction.

“I think the blueprint is, in my mind, typically the same,” said Ruston Webster, general manager of the Tennessee Titans and former vice president of player personnel for the Seahawks. “You have to be strong on defense. You’ve got to be able to throw the ball in the NFL now. It’s not just running the ball, and the rules do help the offense.

“The key is to be strong on defense and then have enough of a running game that you can put the game away at the end. You really have to build a team for the playoffs. When you get in the playoffs, you’re playing in cold weather and you’ve got to be able to run the ball, as well.”

The Titans, of course, have Chris Johnson, who had had 300-carry seasons in 2010 and 2009 – when he surpassed 2,000 yards by going for 134 yards, on 36 carries, against the Seahawks in the season finale.

Jeff Fisher was the Titans’ coach then. Now, he’s with the Rams – a team that also has a young QB (Sam Bradford, the first pick overall in the 2010 draft) as well as a durable and productive back (Steven Jackson, their first-round pick in 2004).

“I think anytime you’re developing a young quarterback, the key is to be able to hand the ball off,” Fisher said at the Combine. “Obviously, Steven’s proven he can do that year after year (he has three 300-carry seasons and three more with 250-plus carries in his eight-season career).

“He’s still got a lot of carries left.”

From Fisher’s lips to Holmgren’s ears? That remains to be seen – and heard, when commissioner Roger Goodell steps to the podium to announce the Browns’ pick.

And why should that pick be Richardson?

“Because of the quality and the effort I’ll bring to the game,” Richardson said when asked why a team should use a Top 10 pick on him. “When it comes down to it, I’ll be the dude that’s on the field and getting the ball on three-and-3 or fourth-and-1, and not being cocky or anything.

“Everybody knows I can run the ball. I’ve never been caught from behind. So if anyone wants to question my speed, just look at the tape. When it comes to playing football, any game you want to look at, try to find a negative.”

The only negative with Richardson, it would seem, is the suddenly devalued position he plays.