All signs point toward a shift in policy, however, with Trent Richardson on the scene. Alabama’s bowling ball of a running back is projected to go to Cleveland with the fourth pick of Thursday’s NFL draft.
The Heisman Trophy finalist hears the criticism of risking prime draft real estate on perishable goods. Running backs have the shortest career-expectancy (2.57 years) of any positional group in the NFL. The average player lasts 3.3 years, according to the league.
“I want to set the bar high and put us back on the map and show them that we’re very, very rare and that we need to be in the top 5, top 10,” Richardson said. “We need to be up there high. A lot of teams try to beat up on us a lot of times. When it comes down to it, I think they’re going to need us early in our career and we’re going to try to make it to our second contract and try to do stuff with it.”
In the last 10 drafts, of the first running backs taken, five were taken in the top 10. Richardson’s former Alabama teammate Mark Ingram was the first running back drafted last season when New Orleans tookhim 28th.
Alabama coach Nick Saban’s been on the other side of the draft several times. As the Dolphins head coach in 2005, he drafted Auburn’s Ronnie Brown second — the earliest a running back’s been taken since 1995 when the Bengals took Ki-Jana Carter No. 1.
A lot has changed since then, he said.
“I know there are some people that have some concerns about taking a running back high but with the salary cap changes in the rookie pool, you’re not investing as much in a guy as you used to,” Saban said. “You better take somebody that you know is going to be a good player on your team and be a good fit for you and be a starter and be somebody that’s going to be a good player for a long time.”
In his three Alabama seasons, Richardson was durable for the most part. He missed two full games late in his sophomore season after tearing his MCL after scoring a touchdown at LSU. Then, this January, Richardson had minor knee surgery after hurting his knee days before running for 96 yards in the BCS Championship Game win over LSU.
Despite his bruising running style, Richardson said he felt fresh and required little physical treatment throughout his final collegiate season.
Should he land in Cleveland, Richardson will enter a rushing-challenged offense. Top back Peyton Hillis averaged just 3.6 yards on 161 carries followed by former Tennessee star Montario Hardesty (3.0 yards on 88 attempts). As a junior at Alabama, Richardson averaged 5.9 yards on his 283 runs.
Hillis is now in Kansas City leaving the starring role up for grabs.
Playing with Cleveland would also mean adjusting to a new reality. After winning two national titles in three seasons with the Crimson Tide, Richardson faces suiting up for a hard-luck franchise. The Browns have won 10 games just once since its rebirth in 1999 — a span that included just two winning seasons and one playoff appearance.
“It’s going to be a challenge but it really doesn’t matter,” Richardson said.
“As long as we play hard and try to get everybody gelling, I think it’ll all work out. Wherever we go, I think we’re going to try to get everybody to buy into the program and be on the same page. That’s what we have had here and we had a lot of success here.”
Michael Casagrande covers University of Alabama sports for The Star. Follow him on Twitter @UARollTide_Star