This is Part 7 in my 10-Part Second-Year Running Back Series, using NFL Game Rewind to analyze each sophomore back's rookie-season tape. For the Lamar Miller, David Wilson, Bryce Brown, Vick Ballard, Bernard Pierce, and Ronnie Hillman writeups, click here:
A little-known seventh-round pick out of Abilene Christian, Richardson outplayed more highly touted Rams second-rounder Isaiah Pead in training camp and entered his rookie year as the primary change-of-pace back for Steven Jackson. After a handful of early-season long runs, there were whispers Richardson might steal Jackson's job. (That may sound silly now, but it really did happen.) Richardson's usage faded down the stretch, earning 16 combined carries over the last five games. He averaged a paltry 1.53 YPC on his final 17 runs.
Earlier this offseason, I asked a high-ranking Rams official why Richardson's usage dwindled. He explained that the team simply wanted to get Jackson the football more in what they internally anticipated would be the all-time franchise rushing leader's final season with the organization.
The Rams' tailback job is now wide open to competition, with Richardson, Pead, and fifth-round pick Zac Stacy as the top three options. Richardson stands in at just 5-foot-10 and 192 pounds, and I want to know whether he has a realistic shot to be an NFL feature back. My opinion wavered on that topic while watching him play week to week as a rookie. So I took all day Tuesday to re-watch Richardson's 122 rookie-season touches. I emerged with the following thoughts:
One thing I've learned over the past several years is that watching a football player week to week in small doses -- like how change-up back Richardson was used -- provides a different perspective than watching him repetitively all at once. I think you get a much stronger feel for a player watching him over and over at a voluminous clip in one extended sitting. My opinion of Richardson as last season closed was less favorable than it is now. It's also possible I sort of subconsciously held Richardson's late-season usage reduction against him.
Following this one-fell-swoop review of his 122 touches, I think Richardson stands a legitimate chance to be the foundation of St. Louis' rushing attack, if given that opportunity. I think he can be a go-to, lead NFL runner in a spread-type offense the Rams are expected to implement this season.
So why was Richardson's late-season yards-per-carry average so low? It was 4.85 on the year, and 5.54 before those final 17 runs. On game tape, Richardson didn't look gassed or like he'd hit a rookie wall. He looked like the same player. I think a number of factors were at work. For one, the Rams played a murderer's row of stretch-run rush defenses, facing San Francisco, Tampa Bay, Minnesota, and Seattle at their place. The 17-run sample size was small. Injuries piled up on St. Louis' offensive line, which allowed a ton of backfield penetration. Richardson still flashed big-play ability on receptions and toss sweeps. He just didn't get any room to run on those final few carries.
Save arguably David Wilson, Daryl Richardson is the single most explosive second-year back I've reexamined for this series, superior in this area to Lamar Miller, Bryce Brown, Ronnie Hillman, and Bernard Pierce. He runs with urgency, high energy and suddenness, and displays outstanding first-step burst. Again, again, and again, Richardson's acceleration jumped off the screen. He has big-play speed both on inside runs and plays to the edge. Richardson consistently demonstrated natural explosion whenever his shoulder pads were pointed north-south or at a 45-degree angle. He routinely won footraces to the corner. Richardson runs with an incredible amount of juice.
What I found even more encouraging than Richardson's straight-ahead burst and speed was his toughness between the tackles. His sheer velocity on inside running plays was outstanding and extremely impressive for a back his size. Richardson never shied from contact and finished runs with authority. He kept his feet moving through traffic and consistently fell forward to max out plays.
While this all made Richardson an exciting watch, there were concerns. Fumbling is one of the most fixable running back flaws, but Richardson had rookie-year ball-security issues. He fumbled three times, losing two. The most critical lost ball came in clock-killing mode with St. Louis leading Washington 31-28 late in Week 2. The fumble almost cost the Rams the game. Richardson was inconsistent in pass protection, and it stood out more than once. I did think he showed plus receiving skills, securing the football with his hands rather than body and converting 24-of-26 (92.3 percent) catchable targets.
As a runner, Richardson lacks great balance, on several occasions slipping in the hole or behind the line of scrimmage before attempts at upfield cuts. This resulted in yards left on the field. Richardson's vision was shaky and somewhat unpredictable from snap to snap. I counted several plays on which a cutback lane was opened by his offensive line, but Richardson failed to identify. Again, he left too much yardage on the field.
If Richardson didn't diagnose an alley early in his rushing attempt, he sometimes got into trouble. I'd describe him as sudden and explosive, but not elusive. Richardson is not a shake-and-bake runner, and rarely made defenders outright miss. He ran into too many piles. And because of his size, Richardson did not break tackles with leg drive. He can run through arm tackles when sprung into space -- I saw him do this often, in fact -- but I wouldn't say he's a particularly effective after-contact-yardage back. He ran with toughs and physicality, but did not run with power.
Here were some comments on Richardson made by NFL Network's Mike Mayock during the Rams' Week 5 game against the Cardinals:
"I kinda like this kid. Seventh-round pick, not a lot of publicity generated about him. Richardson has consistently outplayed Isaiah Pead to the point where he's getting almost equal snaps in the backfield now with Steven Jackson. ... And he's a lot quicker than Steven Jackson is at this point in his career. He's got burst to him."
Whether it was Mayock, Gus Johnson, or Ian Eagle, I noticed announcing crews covering Rams games continuously mistake Richardson for Steven Jackson. I took this as a good sign for Richardson, and more evidence of his combination of burst, inside toughness, and rushing velocity.
An observation I recall making during the season -- when Richardson was operating as a pace-change back behind Jackson -- was that the Rams preferred using him on the perimeter as opposed to inside. While this reexamination did reconfirm Richardson’s frequent handling of screens, swings, off-tackle sprints, and stretch runs, the coaching staff certainly wasn't averse to letting Richardson attack opponents on interior handoffs. In my snap-by-snap chart of Richardson's 98 carries, I marked 55 (56.1 percent) as designed to travel inside. And whereas Bryce Brown and David Wilson were prone to run-bouncing outside, Richardson did a commendable job of staying inside on between-the-tackles runs, playing within the design of the offense.
My pre-draft analysis of Zac Stacy can be found at this link. And in this second-year running back series, I still have Isaiah Pead left to go. But while I fully acknowledge some (mostly correctable) flaws in his game, my preliminary conclusion after re-watching Richardson is that he will likely be the Rams' best backfield option in 2013. I'm changing my opinion of him and bumping him up my fantasy rankings.