BEREA — Seventeen months ago, the Browns traded fourth-, fifth- and seventh-round picks to move up one spot just to guarantee they’d get Alabama running back Trent Richardson with the No. 3 selection in the draft.
On Wednesday, the new Cleveland regime determined Richardson wasn’t as valuable as a pick expected to land in the bottom half of the first round.
In a stunning move that shifted the focus of the NFL world to the 300-mile stretch from Cleveland to Indianapolis, the Browns traded Richardson for the Colts’ first-round pick in 2014.
“This wasn’t something negative about Trent as much as it was the value that we think we got in terms of what we feel we need to do to move the franchise forward and get it to where we want it to be. We thought that positioned us well to do that,” said CEO Joe Banner, who’s in his first full season in charge. “Trent’s a really good player. So I think he would’ve done really well here, and I think he’s going to do really well here.”
Blockbuster trades are rare in the NFL, especially during the season. According to ESPN, Richardson joined defensive lineman John Matuszak as the only players since the 1970 merger to be drafted in the top three and play for another team the following year.
But Banner pulled the trigger and dealt the smiling face of the franchise — and a fan favorite — in by far the team’s biggest trade since 1999, and one of the most significant in its history.
“The opportunity as an organization was there for us to have a chance to get better, ultimately, and we felt like it was the right decision overall,” Banner said.
Banner said the trade talks began Tuesday and implied the Colts called first. They wanted a running back after Vick Ballard suffered a season-ending knee injury last week.
The Colts (1-1) went 11-5 last year and made the playoffs with quarterback Andrew Luck, who was taken two picks before Richardson.
“Building a MONSTER for the BEST fans in the WORLD!!!!!!!!!!” Colts owner Jim Irsay tweeted.
The move followed a slow start by Richardson and the Browns. He rushed 31 times for 105 yards, a 3.4 average and a long of 10 in the two losses to open the season.
The deal shifts the focus beyond this season. Richardson, despite his flaws and mediocre production, was one of the team’s best players and expected to play a leading role. In return the Browns added an important piece to their stockpile of draft choices in May.
They have 10 picks, including two in the first, third and fourth rounds. The assumption is they want the assets to make sure they land the quarterback they want at the top of the draft.
“I don’t want to tip our hands on what we’re going to do,” Banner said. “But we’ve accumulated those picks and we’re positioning ourselves to build the kind of team that is good and sustainable.”
It was a bad day for the 2012 draft.
The trade came on the same day quarterback Brandon Weeden, the No. 22 pick, was ruled out for Sunday with a sprained thumb. Brian Hoyer will start and coach Rob Chudzinski said Weeden is not guaranteed to resume starting when he returns to health.
Banner was asked to respond to the impression the Browns have given up on the season after two games.
“As we keep playing, I think people are going to see that we’ll continue to play hard and prepare and do everything we can to win every week,” said Banner, who said he doesn’t have plans to make another trade.
But he wasn’t sure if he would’ve made the trade if the Browns had started 1-1 or 2-0.
“That’s hard to know,” he said. “I think that we would have stayed true to the principle of if we felt the value was good and helped us get where we’re trying to get to, that we would have. But since we didn’t get put in that position, I can’t tell you for sure.”
Richardson rushed for 3,130 yards, a 5.8 average and 35 touchdowns as he helped Alabama win two national championships. The excitement of the fans that greeted the pick has been replaced by bewilderment and, in some cases, anger.
“I just think we have to earn their belief and trust in the decisions we are going to make as a group,” Banner said. “And I don’t expect them to trust that until we prove the trust is well-placed. So I understand the skepticism for now. But we have to do what we think is right and move the franchise forward and get it to where we want it to be.”
Hours before Richardson was drafted, Hall of Fame running back Jim Browns called him “ordinary.” Brown has since been rehired by the team as an adviser, and he and Richardson became close.
Banner probably agrees with Brown’s initial assessment and certainly feels in today’s pass-first NFL, a top-five pick shouldn’t be spent on a running back.
Richardson was hit hard by injuries as a rookie, recovering from two knee surgeries in time for the opener, only to break ribs in Week 6. He played 15 games, rushing 267 times for 950 yards, a 3.6 average and 11 touchdowns. He added 51 catches for 367 yards and a touchdown.
The explosion expected from special backs was missing and didn’t return this year. He had only two runs over 20 yards last year and none this year. Richardson was one of three rookies in NFL history with 250 carries and an average of 3.6 yards or less, according to Bleacher Report’s Christopher Hansen. Ricky Williams and Errict Rhett were the others.
The only running backs remaining on the roster are Chris Ogbonnaya, a tailback playing fullback, and Bobby Rainey, who’s never gotten an NFL carry. The Browns announced veteran Willis McGahee will come in for a physical.
McGahee, who turns 32 next month, is a two-time Pro Bowler in his 11th season. He suffered a slightly torn medial collateral ligament and a compression fracture in his right tibia last year. He was cut by the Broncos in June.
McGahee rushed for 731 yards on 167 carries (4.4 average) with four touchdowns in 10 games last year. He has 8,097 yards, a 4.1 average and 63 touchdowns in his career.
The shock of Wednesday will certainly be felt in the locker room. The players had left for the day when the news broke, but Chudzinski reached out to the captains.
“They were surprised at first, but they understand the business of this,” he said. “It doesn’t change anything from an expectations standpoint for us.”
Richardson didn’t talk to Browns media Wednesday, but did a conference call with Minnesota reporters. He was asked about the pressure of being a No. 3 pick.
“I think people make it more pressure than what it is,” he said. “I just like to play football.
“At the end of the day, I’m going to play football like I’ve always been coached, the way I’ve always played. I’m going to be physical, fast. I’m going to be up-tempo. I’m going to be the one who’s trying to lead by example.”
Contact Scott Petrak at (440) 329-7253 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Fan him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter @scottpetrak.