Steven King

Injury-Free Richardson A Big Deal For Cleveland In 2013

Created on Aug. 03, 2013 2:30 PM EST

The first game that counts in the standings is still weeks away, so it’s impossible to predict what lies ahead for Cleveland Browns RB Trent Richardson this season.

Still, at this early juncture of training camp, the second-year pro is already light years ahead of where he was at this time last season. That’s obviously great news for everybody involved, particularly QB Brandon Weeden. But more on that in a minute

The No. 3 overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, Richardson missed all of his first training camp after undergoing minor knee surgery. Then, just as he was beginning to look like the man who had played a key role in helping lead the University of Alabama to the national title following the 2011 season, he suffered two broken ribs in Week 7 against the Indianapolis Colts.

Despite that, he gutted it out and continued to persevere before finally sitting out the season finale at Pittsburgh with an ankle injury. He put together one of the best rookie seasons ever by a Cleveland running back by rushing for 950 yards and 11 touchdowns while finishing second on the club with 51 receptions.

Still, Richardson was capable of so much more. He knew it and so did everybody else. He just needed to stay healthy and on the field and that’s exactly what he’s done thus far in this training camp. He’s slashing and darting, running over people and making others miss. He’s looking exactly like the special player the club thought it drafted a year ago.

The Browns are keeping their fingers crossed that it continues, for they are far more dangerous offensively with a healthy Richardson. He’s a game-changing runner, the likes of which they’ve not head since Jamal Lewis in 2007. But Lewis was near the end of the road then; Richardson is just getting started.

Offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s teams have always relied heavily on great backs, so Richardson is expected to put up some big numbers. He’ll have no shortage of work – that much is for sure. He’s the best skill-position player on the team and the one Brown who will keep opposing defensive coordinators up late at night wondering how they’ll stop him.

In many ways, really, Richardson is the face of the team on the field while team owner Jimmy Haslam is Browns’ face off of it. Richardson’s No. 33 jerseys are flying off the store shelves locally. Perhaps Haslam’s embattled other company – Pilot Flying J – should stock them at their Ohio locations.

If Richardson is running the ball effectively and catching a lot of passes out of the backfield, then it will open up things in the vertical passing game by keeping defenses from stacking too many men in the box.

Richardson’s presence – and role in the offense – will likely never be more important at any time this season than it is in the first two games as WR Josh Gordon – by far the club’s best downfield passing threat – sits out with an NFL suspension after taking a banned substance

Gordon’s absence will put even more pressure on Weeden, whose career is already on the line as he tries to prove himself to this new management team and coaching staff. He was counting on Gordon to help do that, but will be without his services in the season opener against the Miami Dolphins at home on Sept. 8 or at the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens the following week. That means Weeden will be leaning even more heavily on Richardson to gain yards, move the chains and score points.

If this same scenario had played out last season and Richardson was trying to play the opener without the benefit of training camp, then Weeden would face a real dilemma. The fact Richardson should be there – and healthy – gives the offense at least a fighting chance to be competitive until Gordon returns. Cleveland couldn’t say that last year at this time, when Richardson was a non-entity with no real certainty as to when he would return.

A good start – even 1-1 -- is essential to the Browns as they try to build confidence on a roster laden with young and inexperienced players. To that end, it’s safe to say Richardson is the most essential player.

It’s why there are some smiles – legitimate ones even -- at training camp in Berea, Ohio.

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