Thoughts on Browns and Colts Trade Involving Trent Richardson

The big news of the day came down when the Cleveland Browns traded RB Trent Richardson to the Indianapolis Colts for a first round draft pick. This is an extremely unique trade for a number of reasons. One is that in season trades for starting quality players is an event that never happens. Secondly a team giving up on a first round pick this quickly is basically a non-existent occurrence which really , for the first time, illustrates the power of the new CBA rookie wage scale.

From the Colts perspective we can come up with a handful of reasons as to why they made this trade. The Colts recently lost their starting running back to injury and admitted that they needed to bring in another player to take over the job, presumably splitting downs with Ahmad Bradshaw. Colts ownership has been committed to a fast franchise rebuilding, post Peyton Manning, and does not want to see their team take a step back from the 2012 surprising playoff campaign.

This is a team that is not shy about trading draft picks and pulled a similar move last season when trading for CB Vontae Davis from the Miami Dolphins. Davis was a former first round pick of the Miami Dolphins that had more or less fallen out of favor with the organization by 2012. The Colts quickly pounced believing that first round talent made available is worth the price, which in Davis’ case was a 2nd round pick. This trade played out in front of everyone on the show Hard Knocks.

This is a similar situation where the Colts were likely blinded by the potential of grabbing a player just one year removed from being the 3rdoverall pick in the draft. Richardson’s rookie season was disappointing with an extremely low yard per carry and in my own evaluation some of the lowest running back generated yards in the NFL. From Indianapolis’ point of view they have to see that as a byproduct of the Browns terrible offensive situation which is far different than that of the Colts.

Financially the move makes sense for the Colts. The Colts had $2.98 million in cap room left to spend and Richardson will only cost the team $1,165,900 in both cash and cap this season. Assuming he replaces a player making $405,000 the net cap charge is just a bit over $808,000. So the cost itself is nothing for the year.

But moreso than that, if you are a team that believes that they are getting back a first round draft pick this becomes a financial bonanza for the team. The Browns have already paid Richardson $13,341,672 in the form of a signing bonus. The Colts only responsibility is $6.6 million in guaranteed salary over the next three years. That is essentially the same guarantee that would be given to the 23rd pick in the 2014 draft. As long as the Colts grade Richardson above that draft slot they are getting a bargain on the price.

From the Browns perspective this is a bit of a stunning move. Besides the incredibly high sunk cost they had in Richardson they will carry a dead money charge for him of $6,670,836 in 2014. It also marks a complete give up on the 2012 draft which was supposed to re-shape the Browns franchise. In that draft they drafted Richardson and QB Brandon Weeden in the first round. Today they benched Weeden and then turned around and traded Richardson.

The Browns side of this shows the power that the new CBA has given teams in regards to rookies and there are a number of reasons that they could take this move on from a financial perspective. The first reason obviously is the wage scale itself. While the charges paid to Richardson and the remaining dead money is high, it is nothing compared to the old draft payscale. The last third round pick of the old system was Gerald McCoy of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. McCoy earned $15,792,500 in bonus money as a rookie. In the second year of his contract the Buccaneers paid him a $9,975,000 option bonus. All of this would have been paid well before the trade date. Had the team traded McCoy they would have been left with a dead money charge of $10,980,000 in the year following the trade. The team trading for him would have taken on $15.34 million in cap charges for the three year period. Remember that these are 2010 dollars meaning they would have been much higher in 2012.

The other CBA area that this highlights is the removal of the salary cap floor. In the old CBA teams were required to spend up to a certain level in salary cap dollars. More often this eliminated gigantic carryover dollars from year to year leaving most teams with a similar unadjusted salary cap. The new CBA removed this rule and replaced it with cash spending limits over four year periods. A team like the Browns was able to carry over $14 million dollars in 2012 and maintain a cap payroll of over $20 million in space, which will be rolled over to 2013 to easily absorb the financial impact of the move.  This would have been far more difficult before 2011.

While some may see this as giving up on the season, much depends on the internal grade they are giving to Richardson. Like I mentioned above Richardson was not productive in 2012. His style of running is a throwback to an older generation that could feature players like Jerome Bettis gaining small amounts of yards but pounding the ball into the line multiple times a game. Richardson was slow to the line and never avoided contact. He was closer to a Jamal Lewis in the later years than a real game changer like Adrian Peterson.

You have to value players as assets and if there is a team willing to give you back a first round pick it’s a move you need to make. If it was possible to forget that Richardson was the third overall pick in the draft he would have been considered a replacement level player likely destined for injury due to absorbing more punishment than needed.  The longer you wait on those players the less you will receive in return.

Looking back through some high pick trades/busts would show that lesson. Aaron Curry was selected 4th  overall in 2009 by the Seattle Seahawks.  By the end of the 2010 season the book was written on him and it was well known the staff wanted him gone. The Seahawks received a 7th round pick for Curry just two years removed from the draft and they had to pre-pay a large portion of his salary. Last season the Rams traded former number 2 overall pick Jason Smith to the New York Jets. Again Smith had fallen out of favor with an organization and coaching staff. They had to prepay a large portion of his salary to entice the Jets to make the trade. The Jets gave up Wayne Hunter, a journeyman tackle, for Smith.

With the Browns realizing how bad their offense was it was only a matter of time before new things were tried in 2013. Weeden was step one and Richardson would have been step two at some point. Once that occurs his value plummets barring a turnaround in performance.  Even if he wasn’t benched it becomes two years removed from a draft and teams would hear all offseason about how the Browns don’t want him anymore. You go from earning back a 1st to a 2nd or maybe far worse. Remember that cutting Richardson could never happen because his salary was fully guaranteed with no offsets so they had to find a trade partner to move him.

While this may look like the Browns blowing it up my feeling is they believe that they will get similar performance from a Willis McGahee type player that they would from Richardson. Even if he doesn’t all that happens is the Browns will improve their draft position. The st6rategy here is to amass draft picks and have the ammunition needed to draft a QB even if they fail to be bad enough to pick one themselves. If not they should be in a position to grab good offensive talent, an area where the Browns are woefully short on spending. All the cap room they are creating could allow them to go into free agency and look at players like Jay Cutler and surround him with high draft picks, which may be Plan B at this point.

The other aspect that this trade brings up is the short leash which players should be on under the new CBA. Under the old CBA salary cap charges dictated playing time and the fact that you had to hold onto busts for a long time. That CBA helped players such as David Carr and Mark Sanchez earn lucrative extensions despite mediocre performance. It allowed for players like Joey Harrington to get way more opportunities than the play deserved. Teams are no longer financially bound to these high drafy picks and it plays into the fact that teams should be trying new things when the players fail.

This is more in respect to Weeden than Richardson, but it is a smart football decision to sit him and see if there is anything else on the roster. At the worst you are stuck with a player on a salary that is representative of a backup salary. It is easy to justify putting him on the bench. It’s why is so mind boggling that a team like the Jaguars is so desperate to get something out of Blaine Gabbert. His contract doesn’t force him onto a team anymore yet the Jaguars are treating it like it does.

So while it has been a tough decade to be a Browns fans today’s moves show me an organization that at least “gets it” in regards to rookie management. They understand the new CBA and what it means. Evaluate what you have and if you don’t like it find a trade partner before they realize you are abandoning ship. Cleveland moved on today and that is a great thing for that city.

For the Colts this carries low risk financially but they need Richardson to play like a top level talent to make it worth it,. The team has many holes and I’d be a little worried about the trades of high picks. They have amassed large cap space to spend and Id expect them to be active in free agency again. They were big spenders in 2013, but long term building through free agency is often not the way to build a perennial contender. Richardson is young so the age isnt an issue here but he has to perform better than their draft slot they gave up to make this a good decision from their side rather than an impulse splashy move that grabs headlines and does little to improve the team.

We’ll get the cap figures updated tomorrow to reflect the trade.

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