STARKVILLE, MS - NOVEMBER 12: Quarterback AJ McCarron #10 of the Alabama Crimson Tide throws a pass to running back Trent Richardson #3 of the Alabama Crimson Tide during the third quarter on November 12, 2011 at Davis Wade Stadium in Starkville, Mississippi. (Photo by Butch Dill/Getty Images)
I've been a part of the 'anti-Richardson' camp for a while now. I don't dislike Trent Richardson as a player. In fact, I think he's a tremendous prospect. My reasons for disliking him as a top 5 draft pick have very little to do with Richardson himself, and everything to do with today's NFL game. The running game has declined in relevance on offense and running backs get injured often and have relatively short careers, and there are likely to be good change-of-pace backs who can operate on passing downs available later in the draft. That's good enough for the Bucs, as they have Legarrette Blount to be the main rusher. The combination of those three things makes it tough for me to see the value of a running back in the top 5. But there's one reason why Richardson could be worth a top 5 pick despite these reasons: his impact in the passing game.
In this draft, there are two players who I think could step in immediately and be a high-quality third-down back, both as a pass-blocker and a pass-receiver: Trent Richardson and Doug Martin. In fact, that's part of the reason why I selected Doug Martin in the second round of the SB Nation Mock Draft. Those two running backs are terrific pass blockers and productive pass receivers. There are other good pass receivers at running back in this draft, but no other quality pass blockers. Running backs can develop that skill, but it takes time, and many RBs never master that until late in their careers - if ever.
And that's what the Bucs need most at running back right now. They have a productive running back in Legarrette Blount. A running back who does need to get more consistent, and who needs to learn to control his fumbles - but that's all coachable, and unlikely to be a problem in the future. But Blount has not demonstrated the ability to be a consistent pass blocker and pass receiver. And looking at his skillset, I don't think he'll ever be a good receiver: he's not laterally explosive - he cannot execute a jump cut, and he struggles to make the first man miss if he doesn't have momentum. Yet on passing downs, he will often have to catch, turn, and make a man miss. That won't work. But both Richardson and Martin can do that, and should excel on passing downs.
So how important is a quality third-down back to an offense? For the Bucs, these backs were extremely important the past few seasons. Josh Freeman thrived on third downs in 2010, for three reasons: his ability to find Mike Williams and Kellen Winslow, his ability to scramble for yardage, and Cadillac Williams' ability to make a man miss and go get a first down after a check-down pass.
All three of those elements were facilitated by a good third-down back. Cadillac Williams was as reliable a pass blocker as there was in the NFL that year, and he gave Freeman the time to get off the ball to Williams or Winslow down the field. When he couldn't, he got the time to find a lane to scramble for yardage - again, helped by the running back's blocking. But most importantly, Cadillac regularly managed to make one, two or three guys miss to just get enough yardage for a first down. That was a big reason why the Bucs were so productive late in the game in two-minute situations: Freeman either found an open guy downfield, or he checked it down and still got a first down.
Early last season, the Bucs still had some of that in the form of Earnest Graham: a reliable pass blocker and a decent receiver, though not as good as Cadillac was in 2010. But Graham went down in London, and with him any chance of having a good third-down back. Kregg Lumpkin was inconsistent as a pass-blocker and near useless as a receiver, while Blount never really got the chance to perform in that role (though again, I don't think he would have been productive there).
Of course, being a good third-down back alone will not get you drafted in the top 5 of a draft. But being a good third-down back does really help Richardson's value, in two different ways. It gives him versatility, and it makes him arguably a better prospect than Adrian Peterson, who still isn't all that relevant on third downs. Richardson becomes a true third-down back in the NFL, who can be productive in that role from day one. He would not only be a terrific runner, who would fit very well in the Bucs' power running scheme, but he would also be a productive part of the passing game - not just a back who serves as a decoy on play-action passes.
But as I said, there are two reasons why this helps Richardson. Not only does this versatility help him out immediately, it also gives him longevity. While running backs get injured relatively often and often decline after five or six years in the NFL, they do stay productive as receiving backs for much longer. Look no further than Cadillac Williams, who had lost all usefulness as a runner due to two devastating knee injuries when he was still a productive receiver and pass-blocker.
Does all of this make Richardson truly worth the fifth overall pick? My inclination is still to say no, but the argument can be made even if you believe that this is a passing league, and backs are only useful for a short time.