If you recall back in July, I listed Trent Richardson as my twelfth overall running back for the 2014 season. I called him a sleeper, and have been ardently defending him all off-season. What Richardson detractors seem to rest upon is the former Alabama star’s horrendous yards per carry average in 2013, coming in at a stout 2.99 while playing for the Browns and later the Colts. It has become apparent to me that if there is to ever be a shift in opinion on Richardson, then this notion that his low 2013 YPC basically dooms his career has to be overturned.
To see just how poor a player’s outlook would be if they rushed for 3 or less yards per carry, I ran a player season search on Pro-Football-Reference for running backs who ran for 3 or less yards per carry on at least 150 rushes. This is the list of every such season:
There have been exactly 21 running back seasons with 150 or more carries and 3 yards per carry or less. It should come as no surprise that most of them were incredibly poor, with only three backs managing even 600 yards rushing. Clearly, this is not a cohort one would like to be associated with.
How They Performed The Year After
I was interested to see how these backs performed the year after rushing for less than 3 yards per carry. Here were the results:
The outcome for many of these backs was dreadful. As a group, they upped their YPC by .72 in year N+1, which would be reassuring if not for the major reduction in carries (82.2 on average). Most of these runners failed to be major parts of their team’s offenses after rushing for less than 3 yards per carry. You can see that Benny Malone retired after his terrible 1979 season. This data as a whole does not make me feel any better about Richardson’s 2014 chances (or Bernard Pierce’s for that matter). There is, however, one more piece of information that can paint for us a nicer picture for T-Rich.
First Round Picks
When looking at the data sample, it is hard to separate the talented from the untalented. That is to say, perhaps many of these backs were just never any good and they flamed out for those same reasons. Judgement of talent is fairly subjective, but the variable that generally correlates the most with fantasy and NFL success is draft slot. How 32 NFL teams judge a player can go a long way to telling us just how good he is. You may recall that Trent Richardson was a first round pick, third overall in fact, for Cleveland. But doesn’t his horrible NFL play have to supersede his draft slot? The data would say no. Of the 21 backs in the sample, four of them (including Richardson) were first round picks. Let’s see how the other three fared in year N+1:
Interestingly enough, the three best year N+1 seasons were from former first round picks, and they are all players you’ve heard of if you’ve been around the game of football. These three runners all saw tremendous improvements in attempts (55.33), yards per carry (.82), and rushing yards (391). Teams were rewarded for their patience with their top pick, even entrusting them with more work despite a bad year. Sound familiar? The Colts have shown a lot of trust in Richardson based on their personnel moves this off-season. They let their best 2013 performer at running back, Donald Brown, walk and did not add a runner in this year’s draft. That leaves only the oft-injured Ahmad Bradshaw and Dan Herron, a sixth round pick of the Bengals in 2012, as competition for Richardson. I expect the Colts to ride Trent as long as possible this year.
There was something else in common that these three running backs had: passing game impact. Take a look at how the three backs fared out of the backfield in their year N+1 seasons:
I also included PPR points and how each back would have finished in PPR leagues in 2013 as a frame of reference. Quite simply, these backs were true three-down workhorses, averaging about 44 receptions to go along with their 279 rushing attempts. For fantasy, they were all RB1’s. Richardson has already logged reception totals of 51 and 35 respectively in his first two NFL seasons, so he fits this profile. In fact, it was that receiving ability that I pegged as his biggest strength in July. That skill set should keep him on the field, especially with a potentially highly potent passing attack locked and loaded in Indy.
So Should You Draft Him?
This information makes me feel pretty compelled to draft Richardson, especially when we look at his falling ADP:
With a Fantasy Football Calculator ADP almost a round later than it was a month ago, you can now get Richardson at even more of a value, going as RB28 on average. While the sample size has been small, first round picks historically have all rebounded after a season with less than three yards per carry. At this point, even 75% of what his fellow first round cohorts accomplished would make him a sizable value given his current ADP. And remember, Trent posted a 950/11 rushing line as a rookie in 2012 while also recording 51 receptions, so he has a successful season on his resume already. However, I think recency bias has registered that season as basically non-existent to many drafters.
Taking Richardson may be as good a bet as any to get cheap RB1-type production this season, especially when considering the information at our disposal. In a RB-heavy draft strategy, you could get him as your third or even fourth back. And if you’re going Zero RB this season, there is no back I like more than the former Brown as your top runner. Take him with confidence in the fifth or early sixth round this year, and be prepared to reap the benefits.