Many trades in the sports world can be predicted. Whether it be through media leaks or just guesses from fans, not many trades come out of the blue. The Cleveland Browns and Indianapolis Colts did just that this past week when Trent Richardson was traded from Cleveland to Indy in exchange for a first-round draft choice. Indy had just lost starting running back Vick Ballard for the season to injury and was looking at a running back tandem of perennially injured Ahmad Bradshaw and underwhelming Donald Brown to carry the load in a season in which they expect to contend in the AFC. We can argue over the merits of a first-round draft pick versus a high-end running back and whether this was a good decision for them, but the reasoning for the Colts front office is there and is sound. They are in “win-now” mode, and Richardson fits the bill.
This trade, though, left many Browns fans scratching their head. Richardson was truly one of a very limited number of redeeming parts on a Browns team that was still searching for its first win at the time of the trade. Many fans are wondering why Cleveland would give up its star player for “just” a draft pick.
The answer is simple. The NFL and its player market are special. Any draft pick, especially a first-round draft pick, is incredibly valuable in the NFL. Trent Richardson was a good running back, but he didn’t seemed poised to become the superstar that many had made him out to be when he came out of college. When provided the opportunity to get a first-round pick for that level of talent, you have to jump at the opportunity. Rookies have a much higher success rate in the NFL than most other leagues and are under better contracts than already-made stars in the NFL.
This trade was akin to a deal that Seattle and Minnesota pulled off during this past offseason. Seattle was in “win-now” mode, and the Vikings realized they had an opportunity to get good return for a playmaker. They traded Pro Bowl wide receiver Percy Harvin to the Seahawks for a first-round pick. Notwithstanding Harvin’s subsequent injury, the deal was good for both teams. Seattle got better, and Minnesota was able to work toward the future. This is what Cleveland is trying to do.
An important note in all of these trades and “building towards the future” is the immediate replacements to the players traded. In Minnesota, the Vikings were able to sign Greg Jennings to replace Harvin. Just a few days ago, the Browns signed Willis McGahee to replace Richardson. When you look at the trades as Harvin for a first and Jennings, and Richardson for a first and McGahee, I would argue that both the Vikings and the Browns got the better end of their respective deals.
This was never going to be the Browns’ year. The defense is solid, but the offense is devoid of playmakers, and Brandon Weeden is not the answer at quarterback. Trent Richardson was not going to lead this team to the playoffs. What this trade does is give Cleveland a chance to rebuild. The Browns now possess five picks in the first three rounds of next year’s draft. A solid draft from Cleveland can bring in an infusion of talent that was needed to make this team into a contender. Couple that with McGahee at running back; if he sticks around, you can see a real future in this team, as opposed to before the trade, when they seemed to be stuck in neutral.
Bill Simmons made a good point in his Grantland column last week when dissecting this trade. He analyzed that both the Browns and the Colts acted like NBA teams in this deal. I completely agree with this analysis. In the NBA, the worst thing you can do is to be in the middle of the pack. You either want to be a contender or you want to be in the lottery, accumulating valuable draft picks. In this trade, Indy made itself into a contender with Trent Richardson. Cleveland took a step back, but did so with the future in mind, and I commend them for that. It was not a popular decision, but it was the right one. We’ll see if it pays off.
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