Trent Richardson will soar up #NFLRank

"I can't wait for this season," Trent Richardson said. "I've got a lot to prove." Ron Schwane/USA TODAY Sports

This isn't a column on why Cleveland Browns running back Trent Richardson is underrated. My focus is on where Richardson will land on next year's ESPN.com list of the Top 100 offensive players.

We already know that Richardson comes in at No. 84 on this year's rankings, which makes sense considering he gained 950 yards on a pedestrian 3.6-yard average. When you take a closer look at Richardson's rookie season, you'll realize that he was playing at half strength and now has a chance to run past the likes of Chris Johnson, Matt Forte and Maurice Jones-Drew on next year's list if healthy.

Richardson has the vision, power and speed to become an elite back in this league. More than that, he is driven to deliver this season. He's heard the rumblings about being injury prone. He's aware Alfred Morris and Doug Martin had better rookie seasons.

The combination of talent and determination is why Richardson is primed for a breakthrough season. No player will rise faster on these rankings than Richardson. He is the 14th running back on the list. He has the potential to be in the top five by the end of the season.

"I can’t wait for this season," Richardson said during training camp. "I’ve got a lot to prove. Not just to everybody. But to myself, too. I want to show everybody what I can do when I’m healthy."

It would be easier to tell you what Richardson hasn't hurt in his 18-month NFL career. He has dealt with injuries to his knee, ribs, ankle and shin.

After having a loose piece of cartilage removed a month before last season started, Richardson said he felt like he was getting closer to full strength around Week 6. Then, he broke two ribs and played the rest of the season with a protective jacket. According to Richardson, he played the rest of the season at 40 percent.

Despite admirably averaging 21.7 touches while playing 10 games with broken ribs, Richardson finished with a disappointing 63.3 yards rushing per game. That's not going to cut it for the No. 3 overall pick in the 2012 draft, especially when Morris, a sixth-round pick, and Martin, who was taken 28 picks after Richardson, both averaged more than 90 yards.

If Richardson can stay healthy, he will become one of the top workhorses in the league. Offensive coordinator Norv Turner indicated that Richardson could carry the ball 300 times this season. All five players who cracked 300 carries last season ranked in the top six in the NFL in rushing.

There's been increasing excitement about quarterback Brandon Weeden's progress and the play of downfield targets like Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron. But these Browns will have a strong commitment to the run. Turner, who has built a reputation on feeding the ball to Emmitt Smith and LaDainian Tomlinson, has coached the NFL's leading rusher five times.

"When I first talked to [Turner], I told him that I’m going to be in the best shape that you’ve ever seen a running back in," Richardson said. "He told me what type of carries and what type of football we’re going to play. There's a lot of motivation for me to be at the top of my game all the time."

Richardson won't be getting much rest during games. The Browns had limited depth behind him when training camp began, and third-down back Dion Lewis could be lost for the season after breaking his leg last week.

Turner is targeting 60 receptions for Richardson, which shouldn't be a problem because he caught 51 passes last year.

"It's hard for a tailback now to play every down the entire game, but they have to be prepared to play every down," Turner said. "If we're in a two-minute situation, I don't think any of us want Trent standing on the sidelines."

One of Richardson's biggest fans is Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk, who believes Richardson has special qualities.

"You saw it in college. It's the reason that in a league that they're starting to kind of devalue the position, he gets drafted so early," Faulk told reporters in training camp. "He has it in him. It's in him to be great. He wants it. He's never shied away from asking questions or letting you know what he don't know because he understands that the things that you don't know when you find them out, it makes it easier to become great."

The reason the Browns took Richardson so high in the draft is because he's the identity of the Browns' offense. He brings a meanness and a toughness to the Cleveland ground game. He'll run in between the tackles and he'll run over tacklers.

If he attacks this season the same way, he'll end up being mentioned among the best running backs in the league by the end of the year.

"This is going to be a big year for me," Richardson said. "But it’s only going to go as far as I take it."