Commentary

Bad time to be a top back

Decreasing demand on the position will likely limit Richardson's long-term value

Originally Published: April 16, 2012
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Trent Richardson enters the NFL at perhaps the toughest time to be a professional running back.

Whether he goes at No. 4 to the Cleveland Browns or No. 5 to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Richardson is the highest-rated running back to enter the league since Darren McFadden in 2008, Adrian Peterson in 2007 and Reggie Bush in 2006.

What's amazing is how quickly the game has changed for running backs. When Bush entered the NFL, 19 backs averaged 17 or more carries a game, and eight of them averaged 20 or more carries.

Last year, only nine averaged 17 or more carries. Arian Foster of the Texans and Maurice Jones-Drew of the Jaguars were the only backs who averaged more than 20. Because of three- and four-receiver offenses and the increasing trend to have running backs share the position, backs aren't in demand.

This year's class of free-agent backs learned that very quickly. So far, the only backs to receive big deals are Foster (five years, $43.5 million) and Marshawn Lynch of the Seahawks (four years, $30 million). They each re-signed with their teams. Meanwhile, Ray Rice of the Ravens and Matt Forte of the Bears are angling for long-term deals but remain unsigned franchise players.

The best the other free-agent backs have been able to do is sign deals for either $3 million or $3.5 million a year. Michael Bush received a four-year, $14 million deal from Chicago. Peyton Hillis of the Chiefs and BenJarvus Green-Ellis of the Bengals got $3 million-a-year contracts.

But at least they got something. Cedric Benson, Cadillac Williams and Ronnie Brown -- top-five picks in 2005 -- are still out of work. Benson may now have to wait until after the draft to find a job, which is a little surprising.

In four seasons with the Bengals, Benson has been durable and dependable. He has rushed for 4,176 yards and missed only eight games. That's pretty good for a back who carried the ball at least 17.8 times a game. In 2009, he averaged 23.2 carries.

But Benson turns 30 in December. He'll find a job, but he might not get that big payday.

The need for every-down backs has diminished, and Richardson is expected to be an every-down back. The question is going to be whether he can get that second contract in five years.

From the inbox

Q: I have been a Dolphins fan since 1972 and the utter chaos that is going on down there in the front office has made this once-proud franchise almost an afterthought in the NFL. Ten years ago, the Dolphins could have landed any free-agent QB, a top-flight head coach or they could have made some sort of move on draft day to possibly get Robert Griffin III. What has happened down there to send this franchise onto the trash heap? Is there any chance they can move up to take Ryan Tannehill, and if so is that a move they should make? Is Tannehill the type of guy who could play 8-12 years at a high level to give stability and top-level productivity to a team?

Carmen in Mansfield, Texas

A: There is no guarantee, but the Dolphins have played the offseason so poorly that they have no choice. They have to get Tannehill. I don't think they need to trade up to the No. 4 pick to get him, but they have to take him at No. 8. The Dolphins have probably made more mistakes at the quarterback position than any other franchise since Dan Marino's retirement. They've wasted five No. 2 draft choices either drafting quarterbacks or trading for them. They should have signed Matt Flynn to take the pressure off, but with David Garrard and Matt Moore on one-year situations, they have to look to the future. They can use Garrard and Moore this year so they don't have to rush Tannehill, which was the mistake the Jaguars made with Blaine Gabbert last year.

Q: While the Redskins did sign WR Pierre Garcon and WR Josh Morgan, neither of these players seems to have the talent to be a clear No. 1 receiver. With all signs pointing to the Redskins' drafting Robert Griffin III, would it be beneficial to them to sign a big wide receiver with strong route-running skills like Plaxico Burress to give RG3 the big security blanket that all QBs covet?

David in Chicago

A: It wouldn't hurt to get a big receiver, but it might be a better idea to get a good rookie receiver to groom behind their top three receivers: Garcon, Morgan and Santana Moss. Garcon offers deep speed. Morgan could be a good flanker. Moss can work the slot. With a young quarterback like Griffin, he needs to develop a long-term relationship with his receivers. Moss might be in his last season with the Redskins. Bringing in Plaxico might help in the red zone, but it also is only a one-year situation.

Q: The sudden-death overtime rule has always been suspect. Now the field-goal-versus-touchdown rule defies logic. Why can't both teams get a possession regardless of the first-drive result? I personally like throwing 10 minutes on the clock, giving each team two timeouts, flipping the coin and kicking off. As a twist, why not have some kind of field goal contest decide all ties? You might have to keep an extra kicker on the roster to protect yourself from in-game injuries, but if the World Cup can be decided by penalty kicks …

Mike in Thornville, Ohio

A: I'm not a big fan of the overtime change this year because it could lead to more ties. The league would never want to add 10 minutes on the clock or give extra timeouts because it wants to keep the games around three hours. It doesn't want four-hour games. The league is trying to sell a product that gives an NFL fan a chance to see three games in a day, two in the afternoon and one at night on Sunday. An endless game may be great for the fans loyal to the teams involved, but the four-hour game would take an hour away from those wanting to see the other games available in their markets.

Q: I'd like to know what the Niners' thoughts are on Colin Kaepernick. I haven't heard much from them on his progress. Also, most of the experts are picking a wide receiver for the Niners in the draft, especially Stephen Hill. I've got nothing against him but I fail to understand, in a deep wide receiver class, that they would reach for a project wide receiver with separation issues over bolstering their defense with a future replacement for Justin Smith or some depth at cornerback and linebacker. Value would state they could find a good receiver later in the draft. Also, I don't see them drafting an offensive lineman in the first round as they have done in past years since Daniel Kilgore is ready.

Derek in Marquette, Mich.

A: The 49ers aren't going to rush Kaepernick this year, but they will probably try to push him toward a starting job next season. They brought back Alex Smith with the idea of winning a championship with him this season. I don't know if they would be reaching for Hill. Fast receivers like him don't usually fall down that low in the first round. The 49ers would be wise to take him. Plus, they need a good young receiver. The offseason has made them older at the position. I agree on the offensive line. They have drafted well there. Over the next few years, they need to get younger along the defensive line, but they don't need to rush that this year.

[+] EnlargePeter Konz
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesPeter Konz could help the Bears, but center isn't their most pressing need.

Q: So let's say you're Bears GM Phil Emery and you have the 19th pick in the draft. Is this too high to take Peter Konz from Wisconsin? The Bears' center position needs to be locked up for the future and I can't see Konz making it out of the first round without being taken by either the Packers or Ravens.

Julian in Swarthmore, Pa.

A: Finding the next Olin Kreutz wouldn't be a bad idea, but I think they have bigger needs along the defensive line, particularly at defensive tackle. Konz would be a fit, though. He'd be a Mike Tice-type of player. Tice, the team's offensive coordinator, would know him from watching a lot of Wisconsin games this year. One of Tice's sons is at Wisconsin. The Bears have been drafting offensive linemen over the past few years, but they also have other needs.

Q: If the Panthers aren't able to acquire the defensive tackle that fits their need, I feel it's a must they trade back and pursue a cornerback, or even trade out of the first round for multiple second-round picks or regain a third-round pick. Later-round picks won't hurt their already-tight budget as much.

Jamie in Jacksonville, N.C.

A: That isn't a bad thought, but the Panthers don't think they will be drafting ninth in the first round in future years because they have a great young quarterback, Cam Newton, whom they are building the franchise around. The big thing they can't do is trade away future first-round picks just to get one player who might fit a need as they did with Everette Brown. Of course, I think those days are over. The Panthers have to stick as close to the top of the draft as long as they can to see if they can trade up to get WR Justin Blackmon -- if he can get past Cleveland at No. 4. The Panthers now know the value of offense. They want to surround Newton with as many good offensive weapons as possible.

Q: I have heard a lot of former players saying that the Gregg Williams comments are not that far off from what is normally said in the locker room. Other than the targeting of the ACL, they don't seem to have a problem with it. Do you think the league would have a problem with those comments if they were not accompanied by a bounty payment?

Joe from Cincinnati

A: Williams is guilty of three main offenses: First, he contributed to a bounty pool after rules were put in place to ban such activities. Second, he was warned for years to stop the practices. Third, targeting areas of the body is a huge offense. Also, understand that the league hadn't heard those tapes from the 49ers game when it made the decision to suspend him indefinitely. After hearing those tapes, the NFL might not let Williams back in the league after it reviews the case next year.

Q: I have been a lifelong Eagles fan and enjoy reading all the news and stories about them. I read about how the Eagles may trade Asante Samuel. My question to you is in two parts. Last year, with the acquisitions of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Nnamdi Asomugha, a lot of rumors and stories popped up about Samuel being traded -- which never happened. One, why does it seem we are hearing the same story again this year? And if for some reason they decide to trade Samuel -- be it before the draft or a draft-day trade -- what can they expect to get in return?

Bobby in Flint, Mich.

A: You hear those rumors because Samuel has a $10.5 million cap number. He had a big salary last year. He's also 31 years old. The Eagles review the value of their starters when they get to age 30. When the Eagles bring in two corners, you figure one is going out. Last year, it was hard to put together deals because of the lockout. Now, the Eagles have an offseason to make a trade, but it won't be easy. The cap is flat, and there are a lot of good young cornerbacks available. This looks like a deal that could be made on draft day. With luck, the Eagles might get a fourth- or a fifth-rounder.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer