TAMPA — There is a growing belief that running backs have been devalued in the NFL draft. In the past decade, only seven have been selected among the top 10.
The evolution of the league toward a passing game and the increased injury risk to ballcarriers certainly are reasons to go prospecting for them in the later rounds.
But Alabama's Trent Richardson breaks conventional wisdom like arm tackles. And as soon as he sees an opening in the first round, he will be gone.
"Richardson might be the best player in this draft," former Colts general manager and current ESPN analyst Bill Polian said during a recent conference call. "He has very few flaws. And even as nitpicky as we get at this time of year, there's very little to dislike about him or even very few nits to pick."
Richardson is considered by many better than his Heisman-winning predecessor at Alabama, Mark Ingram, the only running back to go in the first round a year ago (Saints, No. 28).
Polian scoffs at the theory that it's bad business to use a first-round pick on a running back.
"Running backs have short careers. They burn out very quickly because of the pounding they take, and in today's game, you really need two of them," Polian said. "So where do you get the best value on a running back? When he's coming out of college.
"You don't get value for him as a free agent — or very few — because the bottom line is he doesn't have much tread left on his tires, especially if he's played a lot. The best time to get a running back is in the draft."
Bucs coach Greg Schiano calls Richardson a "special talent." He has stated he prefers to have a running back who can play every down. At minimum, the Bucs have to find a complement to LeGarrette Blount, their leading rusher the past two seasons who is best running between the tackles but rarely used in the passing game.
Blount, 25, also has nine fumbles in two seasons, losing six. Meanwhile, Richardson lost only one fumble on 636 touches in his three seasons at Alabama.
Richardson, 20, runs with power (he benches 475 pounds and squats 600) but has the elusiveness to make defenders miss. Many believe he's in the same stratosphere as the Vikings' Adrian Peterson, who went No. 7 overall in 2007 and, arguably, is the only back worth a top 10 pick in the past decade.
Conversely, none of the NFL's top five rushers last season — Maurice Jones-Drew, Ray Rice, Michael Turner, LeSean McCoy and Arian Foster — were taken in the first round. In fact, Foster was not even drafted.
"Basically what it tells you is 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. "There are so many good running backs you can get later in the first, why not go down a little bit further and get somebody worth two backs for the price of one?"
That might be what the Bucs have to do. The elite quarterbacks, Stanford's Andrew Luck and Baylor's Robert Griffin III, will go Nos. 1 and 2 to the Colts and Redskins, respectively.
The Vikings, at No. 3, still have Peterson, who is recovering from a torn ACL, and much bigger needs than running back. But it's unlikely Richardson will last beyond the Browns at No. 4.
That might leave the Bucs to consider backs such as Boise State's Doug Martin, Oregon's LaMichael James and Virginia Tech's David Wilson.
Off the field, Richardson has few peers. He lost his father and two aunts to cancer, so when he heard about a high school senior in nearby Hueytown, Ala., who had beaten cancer but didn't have a date to the prom, Richardson took her.
As a first-round pick, he likely won't disappoint either.
"When it comes to playing football, any game you want to just look at it," Richardson said about himself, "just try to find a negative."
Rick Stroud can be reached at [email protected]