Trent Richardson is outrunning the economists. (Getty Images)
With the 2011 NFL season in the books, it's time to turn our eyes to the NFL draft, and the pre-draft evaluation process. Before and after the 2012 scouting combine, we'll be taking a closer look at the 50 draft-eligible players who may be the biggest NFL difference-makers when all is said and done.
We continue this year's series with Alabama running back Trent Richardson. Now, that person you are following on Twitter who claims to be Trent Richardson is not Trent Richardson. Richardson does not have a Twitter account. So all of those Tweets about how much he wants to play for the Browns were just a hoax. They were not even much of a hoax, as the imposters didn't work very hard to disguise themselves. One of them says "I'm a fake" right in his tagline (maybe Richardson just has low self esteem!); another says "please quit RTing these fools." A few other Trent Richardsons are white kids who appear to weigh about 130 pounds and are not trying to fool anyone. So to summarize: no Twitter account, the Tweets were a hoax, and no one has any idea what the Browns will do on Thursday, including the Browns.
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Why follow Richardson on the Internet when we have been following him on the field for three seasons? Richardson was so good as a freshman that he nudged future Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram into a committee role. Richardson rushed for 1,451 yards in two seasons as Ingram's often-used change-up, then exploded with 1,679 yards and 21 touchdowns for the national champions last year. Richardson is one of the most familiar prospects in the draft class; there is no need to search his social networking history to figure out what he is about.
Pros: Richardson is a 1980s-style power back. He attacks the line of scrimmage without any tap-dancing, but he also knows when to wait for blocks to develop and how to anticipate cutback lanes. His patience is one of the things that separate him from other big back prospects, who often rumble at full speed to a predetermined hole. Richardson throttles down so his linemen can do their jobs, then explodes. That style of running was fashionable in the NFL when the Joe Gibbs Redskins were one of the best teams in the league and many imitators used single-back, counter-blocking running games. That style is less popular now, but Richardson can use his patience and eyes effectively in zone-stretch schemes and other systems.
Richardson is an outstanding tackle breaker. He stiff-arms opponents in the open field and will grind through arm tackles. Richardson finishes well and will generate extra yards when going down. While not nifty, he can make the open-field quick cut instead of just hammering a tackler.
Richardson caught enough passes at Alabama to demonstrate that he can be effective on screens, in the flat, or on the occasional wheel route. He is a willing blocker, though he needs work.
Despite his workhorse back reputation, Richardson had only 540 collegiate carries, thanks to Ingram's presence in 2009 and 2010. So he is not overworked. By comparison, Chris Polk of Washington had 799 collegiate carries. Richardson has an ideal mix of experience and fresh legs.
Cons: Richardson does not have elite long speed. Cornerbacks will sometimes chase him down from behind; whether they can tackle him or not is another matter. Richardson will sometimes lunge when pass blocking.
The biggest "con" for Richardson is that he is a counter-trey type running back entering a draw play league. His skill set does not mesh with Patriots-inspired, wide-open offenses.
Conclusion: Modern NFL wisdom states that teams should not draft running backs early. There are many serviceable running backs available in later rounds, and most teams use committee systems that can be filled with two or three mid-round selections. Factor in the modern 60-40 pass-run ratio and the NFL's infatuation with empty backfields and spread formations, and the bell cow backs of the last generation start to look like dinosaurs.
There's a lot of truth in those last few sentences. But right now, there are teams preparing to draft Ryan Tannehill, who just converted from wide receiver to quarterback a year and a half ago, high in the first round. They are planning to draft Dontari Poe, a blocking sled who had a few great workouts, high in the first round. The econometric approach to the draft can be taken too far. Sometimes, a team needs a running back, and there's a great one available.
Richardson's tackle breaking ability places him a cut above the typical running back. The Browns, a team likely to draft Richardson, suffered through a 2011 season in which featured runner Peyton Hillis broke just four tackles, according to Football Outsiders. A great running back breaks 30 or 40 in a season. Imagine how much better the Browns offense will be if Richardson adds an extra 200 yards just by blowing through tackles that dropped Hillis. That improvement would come sooner, and surer, than whatever upgrade a player like Tannehill would provide. You can make the same argument for the Buccaneers, though LeGarrette Blount's problems involved fumbling and assignment responsibilities, not broken tackles. Put Richardson in the backfield, and suddenly there are fewer questions about the quarterback and the receivers.
There is still a place for the 20-carry grinder in the NFL, especially when he can also catch the ball. Sometimes, it is best to ignore cost-benefit analysis and select a great player.
NFL Comparison: Michael Turner, Atlanta Falcons
More Shutdown 50:
#4: Morris Claborne, CB, LSU | #5: Matt Kalil, OT, USC | #6: Melvin Ingram, OLB/DE, South Carolina | #7: Fletcher Cox, DL, Mississippi State| #8: Michael Brockers, DL, LSU | #9: Justin Blackmon, WR, Oklahoma State | #10: David CeCastro, OG, Stanford | #11: Stephon Gilmore, OG, Stanford | #12: Kendall Wright, WR, Baylor | #13: Courtney Upshaw, OLB, Alabama| #14: Quinton Coples, DE, North Carolina| #15: Ryan Tannehill, QB, Texas A & M| #16: Luke Kuechly, LB, Boston College | #17: Michael Floyd, WR, Notre Dame| #18: Dre Kirkpatrick, CB, Alabama | #19: Mark Barron, S, Alabama | #20: Cordy Glenn, OL, Georgia | #21: Riley Reiff, OT, Iowa | #22: Coby Fleener, TE, Stanford| #23: Devon Still, DT, Penn State| #24: Janoris Jenkins, CB, North Alabama| #25: Jerel Worthy, DT, Michigan State| #26: Nick Perry, DE, USC| #27: Alfonzo Dennard, CB, Nebraska| #28: Dontari Poe, DT/DE, Memphis | #29: Whitney Mercilus, OLB/DE, Illinois | #30: Brandon Thompson, DT, Clemson| #31, Dwayne Allen, TE, Clemson| #32: Jonathan Martin, OT, Stanford| #33: Bobby Massie, OT, Mississippi| #34: Andre Branch, DE/OLB, Clemson | #35: Dont'a Hightower, ILB, Alabama | #36: Chandler Jones, DE, Syracuse| #37: Stephen Hill, WR, Georgia Tech| #38: Vinny Curry, DE, Marshall| #39: Doug Martin, RB, Boise State | #40 : Mohamed Sanu, WR, Rutgers| #41: Zach Brown, OLB, North Carolina| #42: Lavonte David, OLB, Nebraska| #43: Jared Crick, DE/DT, Nebraska| #44: Alshon Jeffrey, WR, South Carolina | #45: Kirk Cousins, QB, Michigan State| #46: Orson Charles, TE, Georgia| #47: Lamar Miller, RB, Miami| #48: Shea McClellin, OLB/DE, Boise State | #49: Rueben Randle, WR, LSU | #50: Jonathan Massaqoui, OLB/DE, Troy
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