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Wednesday, April 4, 2012
No mystery: Browns must pick Richardson

By Jamison Hensley

Look at every mock draft these days and they all start the same: Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Matt Kalil.

The first mystery pick of this year's draft belongs to the Cleveland Browns, even though there should be no doubts at all. The Browns have to take Alabama running back Trent Richardson with the fourth overall pick.

Richardson is the best player available, and the Browns need a running back. The only decision is whether the Browns should give him the ball 20 or 25 times per game.

The Browns made the right move by aggressively trying to trade up in the draft to get RG3. After failing to do so, Cleveland must turn its attention to the only player left who can become the immediate centerpiece of a moribund offense.

Richardson is a complete back who can deliver long runs, catch passes and pass-block. He would take pressure off QB Colt McCoy because he is a workhorse back. Richardson would make the offensive line look better because he breaks tackles.

If there was any hesitation in drafting Richardson, it should have ended when he swept the Browns off their feet on his pro day. Well, he actually knocked them off their feet. During a blocking drill with Browns running back coach Gary Brown holding a pad, Richardson delivered a violent shove that knocked Brown tumbling backward.

“Anytime someone’s in my way, I’m going to try to knock them over,” Richardson told reporters after the workout.

While Richardson has become an increasingly popular pick for the Browns in mock drafts, Cleveland could end up taking a different route at No. 4.

Some predict the Browns will select Texas A&M's Ryan Tannehill, the third-rated quarterback in the draft. But the smart move is to go with a running back (Richardson) who scored 21 touchdowns last season instead of a quarterback (Tannehill) who had 19 starts in college. Taking Tannehill in the top five is a reach and likely wouldn't go over well with the Browns' fan base. In a SportsNation poll last week, 84 percent of voters said the Browns shouldn't draft Tannehill with the No. 4 pick.

Others see the Browns picking Oklahoma State's Justin Blackmon. While Blackmon is the top-rated wide receiver in the draft, he lacks the elite speed that the Browns need in a wide receiver. The Browns can find a playmaking wide receiver with their second first-round pick (such as Georgia Tech's Stephen Hill or Baylor's Kendall Wright), but they can't get a running back like Richardson with that No. 22 pick.

There's a chance that the Browns will trade down to No. 6 or No. 7 to acquire more picks and take LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne. Adding the draft's top defensive player would improve the secondary, but it wouldn't help an offense that finished last year 29th in yards and 30th in scoring. The Browns failed to upgrade the offense in free agency, so the pressure is on to boost it in the draft.

“I think he’s probably one of the best players in the draft," Alabama coach Nick Saban said of Richardson. “I think that’s based on his performance and his production and his consistency he’s played with. The personal characteristics he has in terms of psychological disposition to be successful, which is really A-plus.”

Typically, NFL teams don't take running backs this early in the draft. Running backs have the shortest careers of any position, and the NFL has become a pass-oriented league.

The Browns, though, need a featured back after letting Peyton Hillis sign with Kansas City in free agency. The Browns' running back group of Montario Hardesty, Brandon Jackson and Chris Ogbonnaya totaled 600 rushing yards and one touchdown last season.

The impact of the running game, especially in the AFC North, shouldn't be overlooked. In the past two seasons, the Ravens are 15-2 when Ray Rice carries the ball at least 20 times. The Bengals are 11-1 in games when Cedric Benson has received 25 or more rushing attempts.

Plus, Richardson isn't your typical back. That's why he is expected to be the third running back taken in the top seven since 2007 (joining Adrian Peterson and Darren McFadden).

"I think he has a chance to come in and become an immediate success," ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay said. "I don't see a huge difference between he and Adrian Peterson. Their running style is different. I don't mean it that way. But in terms of what they can provide, they have a similar grade when I went back and looked at how I graded Peterson compared to Richardson."

Still, there's always a risk when taking a running back in the top 10. Will he become the next Peterson or the next Ki-Jana Carter?

Richardson, who brags about never fumbling or getting caught from behind, doesn't believe he's a gamble.

"When it comes to playing football, I can say look at each game, any game you want to, and just really try to find a negative," he said. "A lot of people try to find a negative in your game. It ain't too many negatives I have out there."

In three weeks, the draft should begin with the Colts taking Luck, the Redskins selecting RG3 and the Vikings picking Kalil.

McShay said that the draft will turn on the Browns' No. 4 pick because of the uncertainty surrounding it. If the Browns don't take Richardson, the draft will take a turn for the worse for Cleveland.