Sheldon Richardson a Surprising Candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year

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Sheldon Richardson a Surprising Candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year

Wrong. So wrong.

That's the only way to describe this column I wrote back in April, when the New York Jets drafted defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson with the 13th overall pick. I wasn't the only one to criticize the Jets for drafting Richardson, but I won't back down now that he's proven me wrong.

Richardson wasn't supposed to be a scheme fit. He wasn't supposed to be ready to contribute as an every-down player in his first year. He's done it all and more.

His instant impact should land him consideration for the Defensive Rookie of the Year award.

"I told you I was going to make them change their mind, their opinion of me," he told Darryl Slater of The Star-Ledger.

I should have had the same type of notoriety (as other players) coming out of college. But because we didn't win, we didn't go to a bowl game, I got looked over. I'd have endorsement deals by now, most definitely. I didn't have a face coming out, so nobody knew who I was. But I'm glad Rex and them knew.

The Jets' defensive line as a whole is developing into one of the best in football, and it's thanks in large part to the rapid emergence of Richardson. 

Through Week 9, Pro Football Focus (subscription required) has him ranked as its top rookie at any position. He's been one of the most consistent rookies in the league, finishing with a positive grade in all but one game this year, and has been especially surprising in run defense.

As a pass-rusher, he has created 19 total pressures this season (13 hurries, three hits, three sacks).

That pass-rushing ability should come as no surprise to anyone who scouted Richardson coming out of school. Here, he shows his ability to penetrate the gap with an impressive burst off the line, followed by a dip of the shoulder, a flip of the hips and a quick turn upfield.

Disruption like this, regardless of scheme, is hard to come by and just as valuable as an edge rush—if not more so, since it takes away a quarterback's ability to step into throws. That was the case above.

Bleacher Report's Ryan Lownes broke down Richardson's ability in that role coming out of Missouri:

When his goal is to penetrate, Sheldon Richardson uses quickness and explosiveness to beat blockers. Possessing very light feet, good change of direction, impressive closing speed and a relentless motor, he can be a terror in pursuit. Furthermore, his versatility is an asset. At Missouri he rushed the passer from several positions, even in a stand-up role at times.

Richardson is not quite there yet, but good coaching should be able to help him harness his raw athleticism and power.

With all that being said, his production in the pass rush is not much of a surprise. How he's using those skills to help in run defense, however, is very much a surprise, considering that was supposed to be his glaring weakness coming out of Missouri.

This season, PFF indicates that Richardson has 18 stuffed runs, which is tied for third-most in the league.

Power may not be Richardson's strength, but it's not yet been his undoing. During a news conference on Monday, head coach Rex Ryan claimed that Richardson's athleticism has helped him make up for the supposed foible.

"Yeah, (he has a) high motor. (It is) rare to have a guy with that kind of athleticism," Ryan said. "I mean, he's never off his feet unless he's making a tackle. I remember seeing a guy like Lee Roy Selmon. That was it. The only time he's ever on the ground is when he's making a tackle. I'm not saying he's Lee Roy Selmon, but that would be nice."

He showed exactly what Ryan was talking about on a play against the Buffalo Bills.

It was 3rd-and-1 and the Bills were in the shotgun. Running back C.J. Spiller took the handoff, looking to run off right tackle, but he didn't even get past the right guard before Richardson had already blown the play up, getting past the blocker and diving at Spiller's feet to make the tackle. 

We often think of run-stuffing defensive tackles as the prototype 0- or 1-technique players like former Jets defensive tackle Sione Pouha or current defensive tackle Damon "Snacks" Harrison.

As it turns out, an athletic defensive tackle like Richardson can have just as much of an impact in the running game as any of those gap-pluggers.

Speaking of that motor, though, Richardson should get credit not just for playing as well as he has, but also for playing as often as he has. According to PFF, the rookie has amassed 515 snaps this season. That's 79.8 percent of the team's total.

Between his versatility against the run and the pass, his big plays and his consistent contributions to the team, the Jets have found a gem in Richardson.

He looks every bit like the best defensive rookie the NFL has to offer.

 


Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand or via team news releases.

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