Trent Richardson might be the best player in the draft, but the running back from Alabama is not assured of being a top-10 pick.
The evolution of the NFL into a passing league has diminished the value of Richardson's position, and teams are more inclined to bypass a potential feature back in the first round in hopes of finding Pro Bowl-caliber backs in the later rounds. A quick look at the top five rushers from last season validates this point, with Maurice Jones-Drew (second-round pick), Ray Rice (second), Michael Turner (fifth), LeSean McCoy (second) and Arian Foster (undrafted) setting the pace, despite entering the league as lesser-known commodities.
That's why the valuation of Richardson doesn't match his talents. With an exceptional combination of speed, quickness and power, Richardson is a feature runner capable of grinding between the tackles or producing big plays on the perimeter. He routinely strings together three- and four-yard gains before breaking off explosive runs as defenders wear down in the game's late stages. He finished the season with nine 100-yard games, with most of his production coming in the SEC. Given the conference's esteemed reputation in NFL circles, scouts view Richardson's output as a strong indicator of his pro potential.
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In looking at Richardson's flaws, his tendency to stop his feet in the hole comes to mind. Unlike some runners who slither through gaps on an assortment of lateral moves and jump cuts, Richardson routinely stops and starts in the hole before getting up the field. While he has been able to get away with the hesitation as a collegian, the speed of NFL defenders could lead to Richardson posting more negative runs as a pro.
When making comparisons for Richardson, the first runner who comes to mind is Ricky Williams. Both are rugged runners with better-than-anticipated breakaway speed, and their ability to play with finesse or power puts defenders in a quandary. Richardson certainly lacks Williams' eccentric persona, but his game and skill set could make him just as productive as Ricky at his finest.
Here are five teams who could take a flier on Richardson outside of the top 10:
(12th overall pick)Pete Carroll has built the Seahawks' offense around the talents of Marshawn Lynch, but the hard-charging runner could depart via free agency in the spring. Richardson possesses a comparable skill set as a runner/receiver and would give the Seahawks a younger, more explosive back to feature as the main attraction in the backfield. Given the team's shaky quarterback situation, Richardson's presence could keep the team competitive in the NFC West.
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New York Jets
(16th overall pick)Rex Ryan is intent on restoring the "Ground and Pound" offense that carried the Jets to back-to-back AFC title games. Shonn Greene has shown flashes of being an effective runner, but Richardson is a significant upgrade talent-wise and his ability to do the dirty work between the tackles will bring back some of the toughness the offense lacked in 2011. Given the Jets' success when featuring a pair of talented runners in Ryan's first season, the addition of Richardson could be a priority in the draft.
(17th overall pick) The Bengals have gotten more production than anyone expected from former castoff Cedric Benson. However, he is nearing 30, the age when most runners fall off, so it's time for Marvin Lewis to find a viable replacement. Richardson's ability to run effectively inside would not only complement Andy Dalton and A.J. Green, but also it would help the Bengals maintain their identity as a rugged offense in the physical AFC North.
(4th and 22nd overall pick) The jury is still out on Colt McCoy, but the Browns could do a better job of surrounding him with elite talent to maximize his potential. Richardson is a workhorse runner built to carry the ball 20-25 times, alleviating some of the pressure on McCoy to act as the driving force of the offense. With new offensive coordinator Brad Childress familiar with building an offense around the talents of a runner (Childress drafted and developed Adrian Peterson as the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings), the selection of Richardson could help the Browns gain ground on their division rivals.
(25th overall pick) If the Broncos plan to continue the zone-read experiment with Tim Tebow at the helm, the team needs to upgrade the talent at the running back position. Although Willis McGahee, Lance Ball and Knowshon Moreno helped anchor the NFL's top rushing attack, none are viewed as elite talents in the class of Richardson. The Crimson Tide star displays an exceptional combination of speed, quickness and power, and his skill set would flourish in the Broncos' run-heavy offense.