You can call the Cleveland Browns' front office many things – just don't call them conventional.
Almost one month ago, the Browns defied popular NFL draft wisdom by selecting a running back, Alabama's Trent Richardson, with the third overall selection. The move – which ultimately cost the Browns three later-round draft picks – countered today's postmodern draft logic which states running backs are devalued in a pass-happy league.
To add to the debate, Richardson's selection was the highest a running back has been taken since the Saints spent the second overall pick on Reggie Bush in 2006. In fact, only ten running backs have been selected in the draft's top five picks since 1999, with only Bush and Ronnie Brown (2005) taken higher than Richardson.
In other words – the pressure is on. But then again, did you watch the Browns' offense last season? Head Coach Pat Shurmur's inauspicious debut was framed by dismal averages of 13.6 points and 288 total yards per game – totals that seemingly can't go any lower. From this perspective, the bruising 225 lb. Richardson is entering an ideal situation.
However, Richardson as a draft pick has to be evaluated within the landscape of a league that rewards teams for their passing games – and not for running the ball. For another perspective, it's worth outlining the standard by which Richardson will be judged. As a comparison, here is a list of the dozen running backs taken in the top ten of drafts since 1999.
LaDainian Tomlinson – 13,684 Rushing Yards and 145 TDs
Edgerrin James – 12,246 Rushing Yards and 80 TDs
Jamal Lewis – 10,607 Rushing Yards and 58 TDs
Thomas Jones – 10,591 Rushing Yards and 68 TDs
Ricky Williams – 10,009 Rushing Yards and 66 TDs
Like all top draft picks, running backs can be considered as "boom or bust" as any player. However, an elite running back pedigree is usually highlighted by endurance and relative health. All five of the above players avoided major injury during their careers. Given the grinding nature of the league, this kind of career longevity is remarkable. Making this group even more unique – or even elite – is that all five running backs were capable "between the tackles" runners.
Richardson's selling point is exactly that. He is easily the most physical running back drafted in years and could even be called a throwback based on the way he attacks defenders. Clearly, Richardson will have an impact as such a runner in the NFL, but how his body heals on a weekly basis will determine long-term success. Richardson is probably closest to Williams in terms of body size and emulates Lewis' downhill running style. However, Lewis played at around 245 lbs. for most of his career – a weight that could better absorb continual hits.
Ronnie Brown – 4,951 Rushing Yards and 37 TDs
Cadillac Williams – 4,038 Rushing Yards and 21 TDs
Darren McFadden – 2,627 Rushing Yards and 16 TDs
Maybe it's a sign that the "power" backs appear sturdy while lighter-framed talents suffer a litany of foot and knee injuries. Or it's just an unexplainable phenomenon why some players avoid getting their ankles twisted under field turf. Both Williams and McFadden seem destined to continually struggle with these ailments. Perhaps their shifty running styles have contributed to injury. The more vertical runners – which can even include Tomlinson and James who made a living by turning stretch runs up field – seem to fare better long-term.
Reggie Bush – 3,176 Rushing Yards and 23 TDs
C.J. Spiller – 844 Rushing Yards and 4 TDs
It's probably not fair to fully judge either Bush or Spiller at this point in their careers. Bush was a draft oddity in that his college theatrics never fully translated to the NFL – where even backup defenders are lightning fast. With the exception of one Saints' playoff run and parts of 2011, Bush has served as more of a decoy than actual running back. Spiller has fallen into a similar role with the Bills, serving as a counterpart to more complete back Fred Jackson.
Adrian Peterson – 6,752 Rushing Yards and 54 TDs
Cedric Benson – 5,769 Rushing Yards and 31 TDs
Coming out of the draft, the popular comparison linked Richardson to the Vikings' Peterson. Peterson is the most recently prolific of first-round running backs and can claim a lineage to Brad Childress, who is now the Browns' offensive coordinator. Both backs are supremely athletic and attack defenders – yet Peterson is a more upright and striding runner, while Richardson plays lower to the ground. However, the true connection seems to be the lack of concern each back has for their bodies.
It remains to be seen how much longer Peterson can maintain his physical running style. Naturally, the same question will be asked of Richardson on a yearly basis. For a contrast, Benson was continually injured during the early part of his career, but has adopted an easier running style over the past few years with the Bengals. Benson, who is practically the same size as Richardson, could serve as the type of cautionary tale regarding Richardson's future.