The Browns Hit Reset (Again) With an Unprecedented Trade

Well, I’m certainly not going to doubt Jim Irsay again. When the outspoken Colts owner went on Twitter yesterday and started with his big-news-is-coming tweets, my mind started racing through possible practice squad players and washed-up free agents; after all, the last time Irsay pulled that one out of the playbook, it was for Darrius Heyward-Bey. Instead, as you already know, Irsay might have been underselling the monumental nature of the trade general manager Ryan Grigson had consummated. By sending his 2014 first-round pick to the Browns for Trent Richardson, Grigson locked up his team’s running back of the future while recommitting to winning this year.

The Browns? They closed the door on another era of future Browns superstars and began yet another stage in their endless rebuilding project. And yet, I like this trade for Cleveland far more than I do for Indianapolis. It’s a virtually unprecedented swap that raises all kinds of questions on both sides, which is … man, I am so excited to talk about this trade. I gotta get started.

I get the feeling that the Trent Richardson trade starts with this play right here:

That’s the final meaningful play of Indy’s Week 2 loss to the Dolphins at home, a game the Colts were counting on winning before a brutal stretch that sees them play the Seahawks, 49ers, and Broncos within the next five weeks. On that fourth-and-10 play, Dolphins linebacker Philip Wheeler just runs right past overmatched Colts running back Donald Brown (31) for a sack. This comes years after Brown’s most famous professional play, the blown protection that inspired Peyton Manning to yell “Goddamnit, Donald!” Not exactly who you want to see protecting your franchise quarterback.

For all the progress they had made up and down the roster over the past two seasons, the Colts were still very limited at halfback, especially after Vick Ballard went down with a season-ending injury after Week 1. Brown is a competent runner who can’t pass protect. Ahmad Bradshaw can run and is a very solid pass protector, but his chronically injured foot precludes him from playing significant snaps and from being relied upon to stay healthy as a featured back all season. Richardson gives the Colts the bell-cow back they want to build a balanced offensive attack that creates opportunities in play-action for Andrew Luck. Acquiring him, as the idea goes, makes both their running game (via Richardson) and their pass-protection game (via Bradshaw, in a new, reduced role) better.

It’s a deal that furthers Indianapolis’s two primary goals. One is to compete with the roster as currently constructed in 2013, an idea that led them to sign a number of veterans in free agency this offseason. The other is to do the best job possible of protecting Luck. In both cases, it’s struggling. Indy barely beat the Raiders at home in Week 1 before losing to Miami, and Luck is on pace to be knocked down 112 times, a significant jump from his 83 knockdowns last year, which was in itself significantly higher than anybody else in the league. If Luck ends up getting hit at that rate in 2013, he would be getting hit about twice as frequently as any other NFL quarterback. That’s why the Colts invested in tackle Gosder Cherilus and left guard Donald Thomas (who is also out for the year and whose replacement, Hugh Thornton, also got beat on that play above). If Richardson can give Indianapolis a solid ground game, it’ll take the pressure off Luck and keep him upright on those plays when he throws.

Although I don’t know that extracting value is a particularly pressing concern in Indianapolis, you can certainly make a case that the Colts are acquiring Richardson at exactly the right time. It was only a year and a half ago that Richardson was considered to be the best running back to come out of the college ranks since Adrian Peterson; he was taken third (higher than Peterson, who went seventh) in one of the most talent-rich drafts in recent memory, and while he’s suffered through injuries since then, none have been traumatic injuries that would be expected to linger on over the remainder of his pro career. Indianapolis is acquiring a guy who would never have fallen out of the top five just a year ago for a pick that will almost surely not fall into the top five in 2014. That’s the definition of buying low.

The Colts are also getting Richardson at a greatly reduced price. While they do miss out on one year of a cost-controlled Richardson by trading for him during his sophomore season, they’re not forced to repay any of Richardson’s already paid $13.3 million signing bonus to the Browns, who will see the remaining unassigned (in terms of the salary cap) $10.1 million of that bonus accelerate onto their cap in 2013 ($3.5 million) and 2014 ($6.7 million). Instead, the Colts basically have Richardson signed to a guaranteed three-year deal for an average of about $2.2 million per season. If Richardson succeeds in his new digs, the Colts will get a franchise running back at less than half of his original price and at pennies of his true market value.

This does continue an interesting trend for Grigson. In the past, I’ve written about how elite general managers like Ted Thompson tend to hoard draft picks during the initial thrust of their rebuilding efforts, in the hopes of using their knowledge to find talented young players who fit their team’s systems. Grigson, to the contrary, has been happy to shed picks to acquire the players he wants. He traded up with the Niners in the 2012 draft to pick T.Y. Hilton in the third round, has already dealt a 2014 fourth-rounder for a 2013 fifth-rounder, and has given up draft picks to acquire veterans like Vontae Davis (acquired for a second-round pick), Winston Justice (sixth-rounder), Drew Stanton (sixth-rounder), Cam Johnson (seventh-rounder), and Josh Gordy (undisclosed). He spent a lot of money this offseason on players with pretty noticeable flaws, too. While most young general managers obsess over building through the draft, Grigson is trading his draft picks away and going after veterans to fill the back half of his roster. It doesn’t seem like the best organizational philosophy, but having won General Manager of the Year in 2012, Grigson also probably deserves the time to let these moves play out before they’re judged.

So, if it’s such an obvious move for the Colts to make, why would the Browns make this deal?

The Browns Are Moving on … Again

To the current front office of the Cleveland Browns, Richardson’s status as a former third overall pick was — and should have been — an irrelevant piece of trivia. Richardson was drafted in April 2012 by the now-departed Mike Holmgren regime, which was swept out of town this past offseason. Former Eagles CEO Joe Banner brought in Rob Chudzinski to coach the team and former Raiders personnel executive (as well as former NFL Network analyst and, yes, frequent guest on the B.S. Report) Mike Lombardi to run the personnel department as general manager. It seemed likely that the team would reevaluate some of the decisions made by the previous administration, but nobody expected the franchise to move on from Richardson this quickly.

They shouldn’t have expected it, because I’m not sure it’s ever happened before. I can’t find a player who was drafted in the top five by an NFL team who was traded away this quickly (holdouts and gambling addictions aside). The closest example goes all the way back to 1970, when the Boston Patriots drafted defensive lineman Phil Olsen fourth, saw him miss his entire rookie season with an injury, and then traded him to the Rams before his second season began. Richardson didn’t have anywhere near as severe of an injury, which suggests that the Browns are dealing him because they don’t think his likely output is worth more than a first-rounder.

Why would the Browns sour so quickly on Richardson and make this deal? I can think of five reasons, some, all, or none of which might actually matter:

Richardson wasn’t producing like the guy they drafted. Peterson averaged 5.6 yards per carry as a rookie before averaging 4.8 yards per carry during his first four years as the full-time starter. Richardson stepped straight into the muck from day one, but he was hardly as effective, averaging just a lowly 3.5 yards per attempt over his first 298 professional carries. Chase Stuart has written in the past about how Richardson’s yards-per-carry figure isn’t as meaningful as it might seem, but it’s hard to turn 3.5 yards per attempt into something beautiful.

The issue for Richardson, truthfully, has been breaking big plays. As I wrote over the summer, Richardson has been horrifically unable to generate big plays with his legs so far as a pro. Just 0.7 percent of his carries last year went for 20 yards or more, the fifth-lowest rate among running backs with 200 single-season carries or more over the past five years. That’s likely to bounce back a bit in 2013, but it hasn’t happened yet through two games; Richardson’s longest carry of the year so far went for 10 yards.

There were concerns raised about Richardson’s fit within Chudzinski’s new scheme when the deal was made, but I’m skeptical of those; Richardson’s size, speed, and talent should allow him to fit into any offensive system or scheme. Those reports were denied later in the evening per a Jason La Canfora report, with the Browns instead making the deal because of concerns about Richardson’s upside and the value proposition of Richardson versus the pick they’re acquiring. And to that …

This trade might be the last chance they have to get a significant return on Richardson. Let’s say the Browns front office sees Richardson as a decent-but-inessential player, a back capable of producing league-average work if things go well. If that’s the case, the Browns would want to trade Richardson while his stock is still as high as possible, in order to extract the greatest possible return. Cleveland’s not selling high on Richardson in terms of how his value has dropped since he was drafted in 2012, but if it thinks Richardson’s going to average four yards per carry and struggle to break big plays, it’s getting a first-round pick for a player who would probably be worth a fifth-rounder, given his guaranteed salary.

If the Browns waited to trade Richardson after the season and he continued to struggle in the way that he has so far in his career, they would have found it close to impossible to acquire a first-round pick in return. They would have likely settled for a second-rounder and another conditional midround pick. This might have been their last chance to get a first-rounder back. And there aren’t many teams who are so desperate for help at running back that they’ll deal a first-round pick for a player in midseason, so the Colts were Cleveland’s last hope.

Running back is a fungible position. To be quite blunt, the Browns could have signed just about any college free agent off the street and gotten the 3.5 yards per carry Richardson’s produced so far as a pro. Even if Richardson raises his game a bit in Indianapolis, there’s been nothing about his level of play that the Browns couldn’t get from a cheap platoon of backs. They’re already bringing in Willis McGahee for a physical on Thursday; McGahee isn’t a star, but he’s a player who can produce reliably as a running back without making a lot of money. The Browns would probably pay McGahee about what Richardson will make this year without any long-term commitment, and they get the added bonus of acquiring an extremely valuable first-round pick in what could be a stacked draft.

They get another asset for next year’s draft. Cleveland already insinuated it would be playing for 2014 earlier Wednesday, when it announced it would start Brian Hoyer over Jason Campbell as a temporary replacement for the ailing Brandon Weeden. Playing a journeyman backup? Trading away your best offensive weapon? These sound like tanking strategies.

It’s unclear where the Indy first-round pick will end up. I’m notably sour on Indianapolis’s chances of repeating its 11-5 mark from a year ago, and while it hasn’t looked great through a 1-1 start, the Colts aren’t going to finish in the top eight of the draft or anything. Instead, they’re likely to finish with a record that would put the pick somewhere in the middle of the draft, with a quick poll of folks around the league producing a guesstimate of the 15th pick. The move will also hurt Cleveland’s chances of competing this season, which would help its original first-rounder rise toward the top of the draft. Let’s say it finishes as the fourth-worst team. That would leave the Browns with the fourth pick, the 15th pick, and the 36th selection in the 2014 draft, along with extra picks in the third and fourth rounds. If they wanted to move up to grab Teddy Bridgewater at no. 2, they could build a very serious trade package around those draft assets. (They could also opt for a lesser quarterback with one of those picks.) In that sense, this fits very well with Cleveland’s primary goal as an organization right now: build a competitive defense while attempting to identify and acquire a young franchise quarterback.

What really sticks with me, though, is …

The Browns might know something we (and the Colts) don’t about Richardson. The nature of how aggressive the Browns are being here with a top-three draft pick suggests that there’s something very distinct about Richardson that this new regime doesn’t like. It could be some aspect of his personality off the field or his work ethic. I don’t like to make those sort of insinuations, nor do I think that it’s a problem for Richardson, but a vague quote from a Browns player after the deal suggested otherwise: “It makes sense. Trent has some things he needs to figure out before he becomes a dominant player in the league.” The issue could just as easily be medical, considering how frequently and how easily Richardson’s been banged up during his pro career. In any case, it seems likely that there’s a little more than meets the eye here.

Regardless of the logic in making the move, I do feel a good amount of sympathy for Browns fans, who are realizing that they’re about to endure yet another offensive revamp of their skill-position players. They appear to have keepers at receiver and tight end with Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron, but their problems at quarterback and running back remain. Cleveland fans are stuck dealing with yet another rebuild of key components, led by a new coach and general manager. You could forgive them for being skeptical and sick of the changes; after all, each new front office ships out the players who were previously supposed to be the core members of the next great Browns team by the last deposed coach and general manager. Browns fans are going to boo this team unmercifully during the remainder of the 2013 season.

One suggestion for this virtually unprecedented move that would score PR points with the local fan base: jersey amnesty. If you bought a Richardson jersey over the past 16 months, you should be able to either return it to the club store for a new jersey or just get a refund altogether. Nobody should have to keep a jersey for a guy they’re expecting to stick around for five years who instead has disappeared from the scene after 16 months. That’s just not fair.

So why does it work for the Browns? I see a few reasons.

Score It for Cleveland

For one, the Colts are giving up an enormous asset — their first-round pick in a stacked draft — for a player at the league’s most fungible position. It’s entirely possible that Indy could have dipped into the free-agent pool for McGahee and gotten similar (if not superior) production without giving away a pick at all, or they could have dealt a lower pick in the draft for a player like Maurice Jones-Drew, who could have been dragged away from the Jaguars for something like a third-rounder. (MJD is admittedly a little injured at the moment.)

The trade also might not necessarily aid Indianapolis’s chances of competing this season. Even if Richardson shows more burst and gets more plays to the second level playing with his new team, the former Bama star still has to learn a new playbook on the fly, which is something normally installed over the course of several months in the offseason. His presence on the field might be a tell, especially at first, that the Colts are going to give Richardson the ball. And if he gets on the field and blows a pass block because he didn’t know the play or his responsibilities, well, that could be the end of Luck’s season.

And, furthermore, I think there’s very likely something about Richardson that isn’t publicly obvious that would make the Browns hesitant to rely on him over the long term. (I think it’s less likely to be something sinister than it is to simply be that they think Richardson takes too many hits.) The Browns are likely better off with the first-round draft pick than they are with their former halfback.

Also, to be clear, since I’ve read it in a bunch of places: Suggesting the Browns are somehow doomed to fail on this deal because they’ve made bad draft picks after acquiring selections in the past is very, very simplistic. For one, it’s an entirely different set of personnel people in the front office; suggesting the Browns will fail because they drafted Brady Quinn a few years ago doesn’t really fly in terms of logic. I’m not saying the people in the front office are guaranteed to find a bunch of great players with their draft pick(s), but I also don’t think it’s fair to slag off Joe Banner because the Browns drafted Tommy Vardell in the 1992 draft.

But wait — what about Pittsburgh? Well, I highlighted the Steelers’ long run of success before this year as a possible indicator of their pending success (so far, oops) and chalked it up to their consistent coaching and elite drafting and development on a year-after-year basis. It has nothing to do with their mystique or aura, and everything to do with their history of developing young talent into valuable assets. They’re still applying some of the same principles and concepts they learned all those years ago today. Cleveland, for better or worse, has no such track record. That it traded for draft picks in the past and didn’t get a lot out of them means absolutely nothing with regard to this deal.

I think it’s more likely that the Browns are happy about this trade five years from now than the Colts are, although I don’t think it’s a slam dunk in either direction. It tells us interesting things about where each organization is going over the next several seasons, provides a perhaps-needed change of scenery for a football player who was expected to be dominant, and it gives us a trade situation that we’ve never seen before. Not bad for a Wednesday night, Mr. Irsay.

Filed Under: Cleveland Browns, Indianapolis Colts, NFL

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Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell