The devaluation of the running back position has been fueled by the belief among NFL coaches and scouts that talented runners can be identified at any stage of the draft.
From Terrell Davis to Willie Parker, teams have routinely discovered gems in the draft's later rounds -- or even among the ranks of the undrafted. A glance at the top 10 rushing leaders from each of the past three seasons reveals a host of Day 3 selections or undrafted free agents, including Arian Foster, Michael Turner, Ahmad Bradshaw and Alfred Morris.
Morris, who is coming off of a 1,600-yard rookie season, is an interesting case study due to the fact that he was the 173rd overall pick -- and the 14th running back selected -- in the 2012 NFL Draft. Expected to vie for a backup spot with the Washington Redskins, the Florida Atlantic product earned a starting job after a stellar training camp. Most impressively, Morris emerged as one of the top runners in the NFL, helping to carry Redskins to their first playoff berth since 2007.
As the third overall pick in that same draft, Trent Richardson was expected to have a similar impact with the Cleveland Browns. The former Alabama standout was considered the only superstar running back in the draft class, which led the Browns to trade up one spot to select him. And to his credit, Richardson put on a solid showing as the workhorse runner for a team that was also breaking in a rookie quarterback and a host of inexperienced pass-catchers on the perimeter. Richardson's 950 rushing yards ranked third among rookie running backs, and his 11 rushing touchdowns were tied for the fifth most in the NFL.
Now, other factors certainly affected the production of each player. Robert Griffin III and the Redskins' read-option offense certainly created bigger running lanes for Morris. Also, with Griffin capable of keeping the ball on quarterback sweeps, defenses couldn't focus specifically on stopping the running back. In Cleveland, meanwhile, Richardson was more or less the only offensive option for what wound up being a lame-duck coaching staff. Therefore, he faced a bevy of eight-man defensive fronts designed to jam his running lanes between the tackles; opponents wanted to put the onus on Brandon Weeden to make plays in the passing game. Given the rookie quarterback's struggles, Richardson rarely found room to run.
Given the huge disparity in draft status, production and team success, I thought I would compare Richardson and Morris, to see which would rank higher if the draft were re-done. Here are my thoughts:
The difference between good and great runners in the NFL typically comes down to vision and instincts. Elite runners can spot creases in the middle of the defense, and they have the quickness and burst to split the crack. Morris' outstanding combination of vision and one-cut discipline is what makes him one of the best young runners in the game. He displays an uncanny knack for finding seams in the middle of defenses on inside and outside zone plays. His exceptional ability to read the flow of the defense allows him to avoid posting many negative runs, which was critical to his impressive yards-per-carry mark of 4.8.
In the video clip to the right, taken from the Redskins' Week 17 matchup with the Dallas Cowboys, Morris demonstrates his superb vision and instincts by turning a toss sweep into a 32-yard touchdown. Taking the sweep heading to the left, Morris spots a lane on the back side of the defense and slithers through multiple defenders. While the solid blocking would have allowed most runners to pick up at least 5 yards on this play, Morris was able to take it to the house, thanks to his anticipation, awareness and instincts.
Richardson is also a talented runner with exceptional vision, instincts and anticipation. Although he played behind a leaky offensive line that failed to consistently generate a strong push at the point of attack, he routinely found creases against seemingly impenetrable defenses and kept the Browns' offense on schedule. Now, I know his paltry yards-per-carry number of 3.6 ranks him near the bottom among NFL starters, but the film shows Richardson to be a standout performer with outstanding skills. Richardson frequently avoided defenders in the backfield and made nifty cuts to find daylight on the back side.
That ability is perfectly captured in this video clip, taken from a Week 8 win over the San Diego Chargers, in which Richardson avoids multiple defenders in the hole before finding a crease on the front side. Most impressively, he puts together a sequence of cuts that showcases his balance, vision and burst. Given the importance of creativity, anticipation and vision, Richardson certainly has the tools to develop into a top runner in the NFL.
To carry the ball effectively in the NFL, runners must display the strength and power to run through tackles in the hole. Elite runners are rarely taken to the ground by the first defender; this is critical when it comes to gaining positive yards against defenses loaded with swift athletes among the front seven. As I broke down both runners, I came to believe that both Morris and Richardson display the toughness and physicality that NFL coaches covet in workhorse runners.
Morris is a big, physical runner with the size and strength to blow through defenders in the hole. He runs behinds his pads with a forward lean and frequently buries his shoulders into the chests of defenders attempting to take him on squarely. Although Morris will occasionally avoid a tackler with a nifty move, he is at his best when running like a bull in a china shop between the tackles. He wears down defenders with his rugged running style, leading to big gains in the late stages of games.
Richardson entered the NFL with a reputation as a hard-nosed runner with explosive strength and power, earned by terrorizing SEC defenses during his final season at Alabama. A series of punishing runs merely served to solidify that image in the minds of NFL observers. He routinely bowled over defenders at the end of runs, intimidating opposing players in several instances. Additionally, he frequently ran through arm tackles and initial hits in the hole. Richardson's production doesn't adequately reflect the impact that a punishing running style can have on defenders; the toll of hitting a relentless runner with extraordinary strength and power certainly changes the way defenders will play in the final quarter.
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Given the speed of NFL defenses, running backs must possess excellent stop-start quickness in order to consistently gain yards between the tackles. Not only do elite runners display suddenness in their runs, they are able to get to top speed quickly in the hole, allowing them to produce gains of 10-plus yards on well-blocked plays.
Morris is not an explosive athlete, but he does display sneaky initial quickness and acceleration with the ball in his hands. He combines a decisive running style with an underrated burst that allows him to get to the second level frequently on off-tackle runs. Now, Morris' lack of wiggle and home-run speed (4.7 seconds in the 40-yard dash) prevent him from being able to put together the kinds of sequences of cuts that can produce highlight-worthy big gains, but he still finds a way to consistently churn out explosive runs. Last season, Morris produced 55 runs of 10 yards or more, which was the third-highest single-season total since 2001. While some observers would partially attribute Morris' success to the Redskins' zone-read scheme and the presence of RG3, there's no denying Morris' production as a first-year starter.
However, I believe Richardson is the more explosive running back, even though Richardson couldn't match Morris' production. With his rare stop-start quickness, balance and burst, Richardson routinely avoids multiple defenders in the hole. While those runs typically produced negligible gains, due to a leaky offensive line, he deserves credit for the elusiveness and explosiveness he showed in traffic.
In the video clip to the right, taken from the Browns' Week 12 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Richardson displays the explosiveness and burst that scouts covet in running backs. Running a counter to his left, Richardson patiently waits for the hole to develop before sticking his foot in the ground and exploding through the crease. His ability to quickly reach top speed allows him to turn a 4-yard gain into a 15-yard touchdown against a rugged defense.
Given the overall ineffectiveness of the Browns' offense, the fact that Richardson was able to produce explosive plays without solid blocking at the point of attack is a testament to his explosiveness, burst and creativity.
Offensive coaches frequently cite the ability to generate explosive plays as a critical part of a winning game plan. For runners, that means producing first downs and big runs.
Morris thrived in that capacity last season, posting nine runs of 20 yards or more and converting 83 first downs in 335 rushing attempts. Yes, those numbers were impacted by the influence of the Redskins' read-option attack, but Morris' penchant for big plays also stems from his discipline and ability to consistently find seams in the defense.
Morris displays those traits in the video clip to the right, taken from the Redskins' Week 4 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He takes the handoff on an inside zone play directed to the right, then quickly bends the ball to the back side when he senses the defense flowing aggressively to the front. Not only does Morris find the seam on the cutback, he displays surprising quickness and burst in getting to the second level, taking the ball 39 yards to the end zone. For a runner who is not regarded as a blazer, Morris' knack for hitting home runs is surprising.
Richardson is a dynamic runner with outstanding speed, quickness and burst. He gets to top speed in a hurry, and he has the potential to score from anywhere on the field. While Richardson didn't show those traits consistently as a rookie, the flashes of big-play potential were impressive. He scored 11 rushing touchdowns as the Browns' workhorse runner and generated two runs of 20-plus yards.
Those numbers certainly fall short of Morris' production, but the film frequently revealed a missed block or two that prevented Richardson from getting loose on the perimeter. It's true that excuses are unacceptable in the NFL culture, but the fact that Richardson delivered a handful of highlight reel-worthy runs over the course of the season suggests he could become a dynamic playmaker in coach Rob Chudzinski's revamped offense.
The transformation of the NFL into a passing league requires running backs to become a critical part of the passing game as short and intermediate receivers. Most offensive coordinators will feature effective receivers out of the backfield prominently on swings, screens and option routes, in order to take advantage of matchups against linebackers in space.
In Washington, however, Morris wasn't an integral part of the game plan as a receiver, finishing the season with just 11 receptions. He didn't display the route-running skills that would have allowed him to be utilized as a playmaker in the passing game. Although he snagged a few screens and check-downs on play-action passes, the fact that he didn't play a bigger role leads me to believe coach Mike Shanahan doesn't view Morris as a matchup nightmare for defenders in space.
Richardson, on the other hand, is a dangerous receiver who shows strong hands and natural ball skills when given opportunities in space. Additionally, he is a patient route runner with a keen sense of timing on screens, swing and angle routes. This allows Weeden to target him frequently as the second or third option in the route progression, which helps the offense stay on schedule when opponents take away deeper routes. Moreover, it creates big-play opportunities for the offense on safe, high-percentage passes.
The video clip above, taken from the Browns' Week 2 game against the Cincinnati Bengals, showcases Richardson's ability to turn a short pass into a big gain. He snatches the ball in the flat and eludes four defenders in the open field before waltzing into the end zone for a 23-yard touchdown. For an offense that has struggled to generate points, plays like that can be game-changers over the course of a season.
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The comparison between Richardson and Morris is a compelling one, thanks to the disparity in draft status and production. On paper, Morris would be the clear-cut winner, based on his extraordinary 1,600-yard season as a rookie starter. Not only did he enjoy individual success, he helped lead his team to the playoffs on the strength of his performance as a workhorse back. However, I still favor Richardson in this debate, because I believe his talent and core traits are superior. He is a special runner with the kind of skills that typically translate into outstanding success as a pro. Additionally, I'm convinced that, if he were in a read-option system with RG3 running the show, Richardson would exceed the totals Morris put up in Washington.
Although we will never know how each runner would fare in the other's system, I do believe we will see Richardson fully maximize his talents in a Norv Turner offense that routinely makes the running back the focal point of the offense -- after all, the coordinator did it in Dallas with Emmitt Smith and in San Diego with LaDainian Tomlinson. Expect Richardson to validate my case with a strong performance in 2013.