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NFL Draft Preview: RBs

Trent Richardson is great, but worth a high pick?

Value of running backs is in question

Trent Richardson scored a touchdown for Alabama in their national championship game victory against LSU in January.

Jeff Haynes/REUTERS

Trent Richardson scored a touchdown for Alabama in their national championship game victory against LSU in January.

Based purely on talent, Alabama running back Trent Richardson is one of the five to 10 most talented players available in next week’s NFL draft. His compact, powerful body reminds some of Emmitt Smith, fitting since both hail from Pensacola, Fla.

But the game is changing in the NFL. Passing is king, and a balanced offense isn’t always needed for success. Of the 12 teams who were in the 2011 playoffs, half had a ballcarrier who topped 1,000 rushing yards, and two of those six advanced to their respective conference title game.

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Neither was in the Super Bowl.

New Orleans, New England, Green Bay, the Giants and Detroit were among the most prolific offensive units in the league, and none had a back who totaled more than 667 yards. Some of those clubs, like the Patriots, use a running back rotation. Others, like the Lions, had injury problems at the position, though that points to another issue: because of the pounding running backs take, they aren’t as durable and their careers – and seasons - are often shorter.

Which brings us back to Richardson and the question of whether running back isn’t as valued as it once was thanks to the explosion in the passing game and the idea held by some that backs are interchangeable – as long as the line is opening holes.

The 5-foot-9, 228 pounder is the best running back prospect of the last five years, since the Vikings’ Adrian Peterson was taken seventh overall out of Oklahoma.

The Browns, who had trouble moving the ball last season, are said to be eyeing either Richardson or Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon with the fourth overall pick, so clearly someone may still find value in a potential workhorse back.

But not everyone does.

“I read a list of every running back drafted in the first round the last five years, and basically what it tells you is that if you’re not Adrian Peterson, you probably shouldn’t be a top-five or top-10 running back,” NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said. “Either because of injuries or because of a lack of talent or whatever, if you go back every (draft) class to Adrian Peterson, you can’t make a case for a top-10 running back.”

C.J. Spiller, whom Buffalo took ninth overall in 2010, and Darren McFadden, the Raiders’ pick at number four in 2008, are the other backs to go top 10 since Peterson, and neither has played up to the level of someone picked so high. McFadden went over 1,100 yards two years ago, but Spiller has totaled just 844 yards in his first 30 career games.

“When it comes down to it, I’ll be the dude that’s on the field and getting the ball on third-and-3 or fourth-and-1,” Richardson said.

Michael Conroy/AP

“When it comes down to it, I’ll be the dude that’s on the field and getting the ball on third-and-3 or fourth-and-1,” Richardson said.

Over the last four years, 12 running backs have been taken in the first round, though there was just one last year – Mark Ingram, whom the Saints traded up with New England to acquire at number 28. Over the same span of time, Richardson, of course, feels he is more than worthy of being a top pick.

“Because of the quality and the effort I’ll bring to the game,” he said. “When it comes down to it, I’ll be the dude that’s on the field and getting the ball on third-and-3 or fourth-and-1 and not to be cocky or anything, but I work on my game every day and even if it’s not physical stuff, I work in the classroom learning plays and learning the defensive line and what the linebackers and safeties are doing so I can pick up my blitzes.

“I love to block. Everybody knows I can run the ball. I’ve never been caught from behind, so if anyone wants to question my speed, just look at the tape. A lot of people try to find a negative in your game and there aren’t too many negatives I have. I don’t fumble. That’s one thing that I do not do.”

Falcons coach Mike Smith, who does have a top-producing back in Michael Turner, believes that running back isn’t being de-valued as much as there’s an emphasis being placed on other offensive positions.

“The game is always evolving, both offensively and defensively,” Smith said. “The ranking of the offensive positions (is) changing. I think you’re seeing more running back-by-committee instead of a featured running back.

“I don’t know that you can say it’s being de-valued, but I think that’s what the marketplace says.”

While Mayock is leery of using a high pick on a running back, former coach Jon Gruden does not agree, and thinks Richardson could carry on a long tradition in Cleveland.

“Everybody says ‘don’t take a running back, we can get those guys in the fifth and sixth and seventh round.’ You go find Trent Richardson in the fifth or sixth or seventh round. He’s a beast,” Gruden said. “He broke all of Emmitt Smith’s high school rushing records there in Florida. I’ve seen him run over people, run around people, he protects the ball, he can catch it, he can pick up blitzes. He might be the strongest human being on the planet, and I think his weight lifting proves that. He’s a team captain of a two-time national championship team.

“No disrespect to Blackmon, but Adrian Peterson, Trent Richardson as prospects, they kind of remind me of each other, maybe ‘AP’ had a little bit more home-run speed, but these are punishing, difference-maker backs, and I think Richardson with Jim Brown and Leroy Kelly, in the history of great backs they’ve had in Cleveland, that would be pretty neat.”

Gruden has a penchant for hyperbole, but not every team has adopted the pass-first philosophy, though for some teams it is because they simply don’t have the talent at quarterback to do so.

Whether he ends up with the Browns or elsewhere, Richardson is bent on proving running backs are not a dime a dozen.

The idea that they are “bothers me a lot because we’re getting pounded on every down,” he said. “When it comes down to it, everyone needs a running back and they’ve got to use that running back.”

Shalise Manza Young can be reached at syoung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shalisemyoung.
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