When I wrote a scouting report on Missouri defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson before the 2013 draft, a few things stood out right away. First, it was clear he had no equal in this class as an interior gap penetrator -- he was able to "get skinny" and fire through double teams as well as any prospect I'd seen in years. In addition, Richardson displayed a rare ability to run with slide protection and bust through quick gaps left by zone schemes. Add his array of hand moves, and it was easy to see that Richardson could succeed to a degree in any scheme, and the New York Jets certainly agreed when they took him with the 13th overall pick -- the one they got from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers when they traded All-World cornerback Darrelle Revis to the Bucs in April.
So far, Richardson has lived up to the pick -- and the hype -- as few other rookies have this season. He's played nearly every gap for a Jets defensive line that is one of the NFL's best, and his excellence goes far beyond the basic numbers. 3.5 sacks and 37 solo tackles don't really sum up a guy who has blown up tape nearly every week.
However, when one hits the advanced metrics, things become more clear. According to Pro Football Focus' metrics, only Houston's J.J. Watt has more run stops than Richardson's 32 among players categorized as 3-4 ends. In addition, Richardson's 3.5 sacks obscure far weightier numbers -- has four quarterback hits and 18 hurries. Not bad for a guy who's double-teamed on more plays at multiple positions than most first-year players would expect to be.
The always-effervescent Rex Ryan, who recently called his team's 2013 draft an A+ from top to bottom (we're not going that far until he stops having to bench fellow first-rounder Dee Milliner) made his case this week for Richardson as the defensive player of the year.
“I just look at the film and base it off production," Ryan said Wednesday. "The production is a huge part of it. But the way he plays, he’s got that relentless motor. Being a defensive tackle and being as productive as he is. It doesn’t necessarily show in the sack total. He’s had 28 hits on the quarterback, or something like that, and the way he’s planned screen games. His tackles are among the leader in the league for defensive linemen. So I think with that, the tape doesn’t lie.”
It most certainly doesn't, and Richardson upped the ante by opining that if the 2013 draft were done over today, he should be the first overall pick. He also said Wednesday that the Jets were very wise in taking him over Utah tackle Star Lotulelei, who was selected one pick later by the Carolina Panthers and is making some DROY waves of his own.
"Most definitely. I still think I'm 13, 12 picks late if you ask me. Just playing. It's all fun and games and I'm glad he's balling, too. 13, 14 and now we're both going for defensive rookies of the year. Can't ask for much better than that."
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Richardson's confidence in his own play was also heard at the scouting combine, when he was asked about his skill set versus those of Lotulelei and Florida defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd, who went to Minnesota with the 23rd pick.
"Sharrif and Star are real good D-tackles. I like the way I stand up to them and I stock up to them. I like my draft stock as much as their draft stock. I think it's all an even playing field thinking about it. You're splitting hairs really. It's all what you're looking for and what you want as far as who you want on your team basically, and if you like them in your private interviews."
As Ryan said, the tape is where Richardson's outstanding play really comes into focus. And as good as Lotulelei and Floyd may be throughout their careers, I'd argue that in Richardson, the Jets got the league's best rookie in 2013, regardless of position. He's currently SI.com's front-runner for DROY, where he's been most of the season.
Richardson was a force from the start of his rookie campaign, picking up sacks in Week 3 against the Bills and in Week 5 against the Falcons. But from my point of view, he started to show what he was all about in the Jets' 30-27 overtime win over the New England Patriots in Week 7. Richardson had a sack, a quarterback hurry, three tackles and two stops, and it was how he racked these numbers up that really impressed.
We'll start with the sack of Tom Brady with 29 seconds left in the first half. The Patriots had third-and-2 at their own 47-yard line, and Richardson was playing three-technique tackle in the Jets' dime defense against New England's trips right formation. Center Ryan Wendell and left guard Logan Mankins doubled Richardson off the snap, but Mankins had to peel off to deal with edge pressure from right end Qunton Coples even after Richardson started to bull that double team.
As soon as Richardson saw the single-team, he gave Wendell a forceful rip move on the other side of the center's head and started hunting Brady down. He broke through and shared the quarterback takedown with left end Calvin Pace, who had bulled right tackle Sebastian Vollmer into Brady's area. Pace forced a fumble which left tackle Nate Solder was able to recover, but the drive was over.
Earlier in the quarter, Richardson showed how well he can disrupt slide protection from the backside. He was playing three-tech on the defensive left side with 7:46 left in the half, and the Pats had first-and-5 at the Jets' 23-yard line. They ran Stevan Ridley on a zone stretch play to the left against New York's base front, with Wendell and Mankins heading up to the second level to block linebackers DeMario Davis (56) and David Harris (52).
The play was going away from Richardson at high speed, and he certainly seemed to be blocked out of it.
However, as he did so often in college, Richardson settled the matter by adeptly rolling through all that zone trash, reading the available gaps as they came open, and accelerating to the ballcarrier quickly enough to keep Ridley to a one-yard gain. Richardson has an innate understanding of how to use leverage in short spaces, and this was a tremendous example.
New England went into the locker room with a 21-10 lead, but the Jets' defense was able to sort things out, especially when it allowed three straight three-and-outs in the third quarter.
"That was huge," Richardson said after. "They were gashing us starting off the game. [They] had a few good offensive positions, but we turned it around real quick. We bend but don’t break sometimes."
The Jets had to adhere to that philosophy two games later, when they upset the New Orleans Saints, 26-20 at MetLife Stadium. The Saints were trying to pull this one out with time draining away and Drew Brees near his own end zone, and in the Saints' penulimate offensive play of the game, Richardson showed just how valuable a quarterback hurry can be. He had been an industrial-sized pain in the butt earlier in the drive, when he forced left tackle Charles Brown and left guard Ben Grubbs to double him on the back end of the pocket. With 1:36 left in the game, and the Saints facing third-and-19 at their own 10-yard line, Richardson went to work again.
The Saints came out in a tight trips left, and the Jets responded with a left-side stunt with Davis coming inside, and Richardson playing three-tech inside Coples. He had been outside quite a bit in the fourth quarter when the Jets went to their straight pass defenses, but he was in exactly the right place on this play. He took Grubbs back to where Brees was, then tried to take the future Hall-of-Famer down.
At the New Orleans three-yard line, Richardson hit Grubbs with a ridiculous inside spin move, taking Grubbs completely out of his orbit.
Then, it was a race against time for Brees -- he had receiver Kenny Stills on a deep route down the numbers, but with Richardson bearing down on him, Brees had to release the ball early for an incompletion -- and near-interception.
The Saints game took place on Nov. 3, and it was the start of a series of games that ended with Richardson being named the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Month for November. In three games, he had 23 tackles, including four for loss, a half sack and seven quarterback hurries, further establishing himself as one of the NFL's bright young stars.
"It's an honor," he recently said of all the Rookie of the Year talk. "But until it's official, I'll just keep on rolling."