Trent Richardson looked as if he had been constructed in some mad scientist’s lab. A mad scientist who specialized in running backs.
Fresh out of that football factory in Tuscaloosa, Ala., the one run by Nick Saban (a mad scientist in his own right), the 5-foot-10-inch, 230-pound Richardson seemed destined for NFL greatness.
After all, he collected more than 3,100 yards rushing, 35 touchdowns, and a pair of national championships during his three seasons with Alabama. Eye-popping numbers that are all the more impressive when considering that Richardson spent two of those campaigns as a backup to Mark Ingram.
He did the bulk of his damage in his junior (and final) season in 2011, when he rang up 1,679 rushing yards and another 338 receiving yards. For good measure, he returned three kickoffs for 66 yards.
Despite his heavy workload — he started all 13 games for the Crimson Tide that season — and the fact that minor knee surgery shortly after the season prevented him from participating in drills at the NFL Combine and Alabama’s pro day, Richardson was a no-doubt first-round pick. A can’t-miss kid.
The Cleveland Browns plucked him with the third overall pick, and that awkward draft-night bro hug with commissioner Roger Goodell remains his signature NFL moment. After three seasons of wearing out SEC defenses, Richardson spent his first three seasons as a pro wearing out his welcome.
After one season plus two games, the Browns traded him to the Indianapolis Colts, who waived him after the 2014 season. He signed with the Oakland Raiders in March 2015 but was released at the end of August, before the season even began.
Now Richardson has just signed with his fourth team, the Baltimore Ravens. He has become the poster boy for those who believe it’s a waste to select running backs with high draft choices.
“Trent Richardson surprised me, to be honest, and going back and looking at his tape again, after the fact, I still see the talent,’’ said Todd McShay, an NFL draft and college football analyst for ESPN.
“He hasn’t worked as hard. He just has not been the grinder that he was in college. And maybe that was Nick and the program getting the most out of him.’’
After playing in perhaps the most structured program in college football, Richardson found himself with the Browns, one of the NFL’s most disorganized organizations, and the landing was too soft.
Three running backs taken in 2012 after Richardson (who was the highest-selected runner since Reggie Bush went No. 2 overall in 2006) have recently signed lucrative deals: Doug Martin (first round, No. 31) inked a five-year, $35.75 million pact with the Buccaneers; Lamar Miller (fourth round) received a four-year, $26 million contract from the Texans; and Alfred Morris (sixth round) got two years and $3.5 million from the Cowboys.
Only two running backs have been grabbed in the first round in the last three drafts: Todd Gurley and Melvin Gordon, both taken last season.
While the recent trend has been to stay away from running backs early — it is a quarterback’s league, right? — the Patriots have been adhering to that philosophy for nearly 10 years.
New England hasn’t selected a running back with a first-round pick since Laurence Maroney in 2006. Since then, it has drafted only four running backs total: Justise Hairston in 2007 (sixth round), Shane Vereen (second round) and Stevan Ridley (third round) in 2011, and James White (fourth round) in 2014.
In the last six seasons, the team’s leading rusher was a free agent signee four times: BenJarvus Green-Ellis in 2010 and 2011, Jonas Gray in 2014, and LeGarrette Blount in 2015.
The reliable, bell-cow back — and the balance he can provide — has been missing from Tom Brady’s backfield recently. Injuries ravaged the corps last year, as depth-chart toppers Dion Lewis and Blount both suffered season-enders.
So, is this year the Patriots buck their trend and go after a running back to complement what is shaping up as an awesome aerial attack?
There is a solid stable of backs in offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels’s stable, headlined by the shake-and-quake duo of Lewis and Blount, but an infusion of young, fresh legs is never a bad thing — especially at a position with a notoriously short shelf life.
There will be plenty of quality bodies available when New England makes a pair of second-round choices (Nos. 60-61) on Day 2 of the draft. Even into Day 3, there will be solid prospects on the board.
“The value in this year’s class at running back is third, fourth round,’’ said McShay. “That’s kind of the sweet spot for good value for a running back this year.’’
Though Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott, the consensus No. 1 back on the board, likely will be long gone, there will be a handful of runners with résumés that appeal to the Patriots’ decision makers.
At the top of the list is Derrick Henry, the bruising, 6-2, 240-pound Heisman Trophy winner from Alabama.
Though he bears similarities to Richardson — Henry has rumbled for more that 3,000 yards over the last two seasons — he has the frame and stamina to withstand the rigors of the NFL.
Asked about the wear and tear on his body at the NFL Combine, Henry was quick to respond. “I’m good, I’m healthy, I’m ready to go,’’ he said.
Henry also said he’s not concerned about not being a sure-fire first-round pick.
“Not at all,’’ he said. “I approach the situation as an underdog and working my way up. And that’s how I approach every day since I’ve been training, just trying to get better every day and get ready to go out and compete.”
Another difference would be environment. In Foxborough, Henry could thrive in a structured program, similar to what he had at Alabama. He also wouldn’t be counted on to be a savior; there’s already one in residence at Gillette Stadium.
“Derrick Henry might be on the board [when the Patriots pick],’’ said ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. “If you want to attack it from a pure runner standpoint, I would say he would fit. Kenneth Dixon of Louisiana Tech would be another one. Jordan Howard of Indiana and Alex Collins of Arkansas, too.
“If you want a situational guy — the third-down, creative, situational dynamo — then I’d look at Tyler Ervin of San Jose State or Kenyan Drake from Alabama.’’
The Patriots have taken a running back with their first pick in the draft only once since Bill Belichick started calling the shots in 2000. A look at all of his running back selections:
2000 — PATRICK PASS, Georgia, seventh round (239th overall)
Comment: Valuable hybrid back who could catch, run, and pass protect. A core special teamer, too.
2000 – J.R. REDMOND, Arizona State, third round (76th overall)
Comment: Collected 790 yards from scrimmage and 2 TDs in three seasons. Was instrumental in game-winning drive in Super Bowl XXXVI.
2002 — ANTWOINE WOMACK, Virginia, seventh round (237th overall)
Comment: Spent a year on injured reserve with an ankle ailment and never played a down in NFL.
2003 — SPENCER NEAD, BYU, seventh round (234th overall)
Comment: Fullback never made the club but did play in 10 games for Rams that season, his lone one in the NFL
2004 — CEDRIC COBBS, Arkansas, fourth round (128th overall)
Comment: Played in three games as a rookie and collected 22 carries for 50 yards — and a Super Bowl XXXIX ring.
2006 — LAURENCE MARONEY, Minnesota, first round (21st overall)
Comment: Rushed for the quietest 2,430 yards and 21 TDs in NFL history in his four seasons in New England.
2007 — JUSTISE HAIRSTON, UConn, sixth round (209th overall)
Comment: Reached an injury settlement after a camp ailment his rookie season. Never played an NFL down.
2011 — SHANE VEREEN, Cal, second round (56th overall)
Comment: Valuable third-down back with underrated power and excellent receiving and pass blocking skills. Unsung hero of Super Bowl XLIX win with 11 catches.
2011 — STEVAN RIDLEY, LSU, third round (73d overall)
Comment: Powerful, energetic, and enthusiastic runner had 2,817 yards and 22 TDs in four seasons in Foxborough. Untimely fumbles were a bugaboo.
2014 — JAMES WHITE, Wisconsin, fourth round (130th overall)
Comment: An excellent receiver (433 yards in two seasons), his role will continue to expand in this offense as he continues to build a rapport with Tom Brady.
Rolling with the Tide
Over the past five seasons, an Alabama running back has been drafted in the first or second round four times — with varying results. Will Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry join the club?
2015 — T.J. YELDON, Jaguars, second round (36th overall)
Comment: Jury still out after a solid rookie campaign (1,019 yards from scrimmage, 3 TDs). Suffered groin and knee ailments down the stretch.
2013 — EDDIE LACY, Packers, second round (61st overall)
Comment: After back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing campaigns, he reported overweight in 2015 and struggled mightily. Reportedly has trimmed down.
2012 — TRENT RICHARDSON, Browns, first round (third overall)
Comment: Just signed with his fourth team. Has a career average of 3.3 yards per carry on 614 attempts. This is his last chance to avoid being an all-time bust.
2011 — MARK INGRAM, Saints, first round (28th overall)
Comment: Has been solid (3,195 yards, 26 TDs) but hardly spectacular in his five seasons since winning the Heisman Trophy. Has played a full 16-game slate only once.