Is Trent Richardson a Post-Hype Sleeper?

Marshawn Lynch went from being a mediocre runner to one of the best in the NFL. Can T-Rich do the same?

It was one of those Rorschach moments in football analysis, a moment that would drive a wedge between pundits, writers, fans, and scouts. This was a monumental, changing day for the perception of the running back in the NFL, for Colts and Browns fans everywhere, and most of all, for Indianapolis owner Jim Irsay’s Twitter account. This was the day that the Cleveland Browns, less than two years after drafting him third overall, traded Trent Richardson to the Indianapolis Colts for a first-round draft pick in 2014.

So much for that experiment.

I thought, along with half of the football-watching population, that the Browns yet again got fleeced. The Colts were making away like bandits with one of the best young runners in the league for a pittance. And then, Richardson’s sluggish 2013 just continued. It didn’t help that the Colts’ offensive line graded out in the bottom third of the league last year, but Richardson was one of the worst lead backs last year in yards after contact. He was also dead last among them in yards per carry, and runs of 15 or more yards (explosive plays).

The hype is gone for Richardson, but is all hope lost? In terms of post-hype runners, there are so many more Steve Slatons scattered throughout NFL history than redemption stories. But perhaps there’s a chance. Like Marshawn Lynch, who was traded from Buffalo and rejuvenated his career in Seattle, perhaps the move to Indy can still benefit Richardson in the long run.

Making a Dent in Trent

As we figure out where the trajectory of this young, once-promising running back’s career will go, let’s start by examining Richardson himself through the lens of our advanced metrics here at numberFire: Net Expected Points (NEP). For Richardson’s sake, we're interested in both his Rushing NEP (NEP accumulated solely on rushing plays), and to a lesser extent, his Reception NEP (NEP accumulated solely on plays where a successful reception is made). Note: Bear in mind, because rushing plays tend to be less efficient than passing plays, Rushing NEP totals tend to be below zero, especially for lead runners.

In his 2012 rookie season, Richardson’s box score line looked fairly promising: 950 yards rushing, 11 rushing touchdowns, 367 yards receiving, and one receiving touchdown. Not too shabby. Yet his NEP performance tells another story. In this inaugural campaign for T-Rich, he accumulated a -17.80 Rushing NEP on his 267 carries for a meager -0.07 Rushing NEP per attempt. For running backs with at least 150 carries in 2012, that put him at 25th and 22nd of 29, respectively.

His 2013 sophomore year saw him plummet hard. Neither the box score nor the advanced metrics look good for this one. On only 188 carries, he accumulated -27.14 Rushing NEP, for an efficiency of -0.14 Rushing NEP per attempt. This resulted in ranks of 33rd and 33rd out of 35 among 2013 running backs with 150 or more carries. Perhaps even more damning was the drop in his Success Rate (the percentage of plays resulting in positive NEP for a player), from 40.45% in 2012 to 36.70% in 2013.

Richardson clearly has declined in only his first two years, after putting up lackluster totals to begin with in Year 1. Whether this was due to injury, lack of experience in the system he played in or poor talent, Richardson’s NFL and fantasy stock are both trending clearly downward.

A Saving Grace?

Richardson has struggled to produce on the ground since he entered the league two seasons ago. A running back's primary job, though, is to run the ball, and so to find comparisons for Richardson's potential career path, I targeted running backs who received 250 or more carries in their rookie year, without accumulating an elite Rushing NEP score (between 15.00 and -15.00). This produced nine other backs since 2000 with similar production profiles to Richardson, including LenDale White, Willis McGahee, and Steven Jackson, for instance.

A surprising thing to note is that Richardson had by far the most inefficient production of any of these players in his first and second NFL seasons, which gives one pause for his future. The closest comparison on a one-to-one basis is most likely Cadillac Williams. Especially when you consider the injury concerns that have already dogged Richardson this early in his career, Williams seems like a near carbon-copy of him in his early career. Richardson’s first two years in the league: -44.94 Rush NEP, a -0.10 Rush NEP per attempt, and a 38.57% Success Rate. Williams: -39.32 Rush NEP, a -0.08 Rush NEP per attempt, and a 38.34% Success Rate. Sadly, the next few years for Williams saw his entire career derailed by debilitating knee injuries, though in Year 4 he had a breakout 0.06 Rush NEP per attempt prior to his final injury.

We may never know exactly what Richardson’s best comparison would’ve done, but we can take an educated guess with all of these players as a larger sample. The chart below shows the results of my averaging these players' careers out to see what perhaps might be a likely scenario for Richardson in his upcoming years.

Year in LeagueRushesRush NEPRush NEP/ TgtSuccess Rate
Y4180.8 -7.57-0.0439.99%
Y5262.1 4.520.0242.71%

While fairly bland, this doesn’t seem to be a horrible outcome for a player who seems to be trending into oblivion at the current pace. The interesting thing to notice here is that this projects Richardson to potentially break out in his fifth year in the league. This is likely due most to the course of the careers of Deuce McAllister and Edgerrin James, who both had similar step forward seasons after four years of mediocrity. Marshawn Lynch, however, is the player most are comparing Richardson’s potential future to. How alike do they seem?

Well, Lynch unfortunately isn't a great comparison for Richardson. While his rushing efficiency took a similar dive in his sophomore through fourth year, Lynch's overall touches diminished too. In a way, the Bills may have preserved Lynch for the Seahawks' use later on by not grinding him to a pulp while he was ineffectual. In Year 5 of his career, his first in Seattle, Lynch brought in his first positive Rush NEP total, and the rest was history. Having paid a first-round draft selection in the trade for Richardson, I don't see the Colts taking it easy on their new bell cow anytime soon. Certainly, too, if these players have a similar skill set, Richardson may need the benefit of a Seahawks-like offensive line to run behind. The Colts, sadly, don't have that.

One saving grace for Richardson supporters is his above-average ability to contribute in the passing game, as evidenced by an average 0.37 Reception NEP per target in his career thus far. Soft hands will go a long way to keeping one in the league and getting chances due to the immense push for passing-heavy offense.

T-Rich is likely not going away just yet, but he needs to dramatically improve his knowledge of the Colts' playbook in order to have a chance to redeem himself. Even then, there may be not enough support for a runner with the physical profile he has (a la Lynch or Cadillac Williams). His best comparison was essentially useless after four years in the league due to playing hard through chronic injury, and back in the day, Cadillac Williams was though to have game changing talent as well. When the NFL stands for "Not For Long", it doesn't matter where you were drafted; everyone is expendable.