Although Sheldon Richardson was considered to be one of the best players available when the New York Jets selected him with the No. 13 overall pick in the 2013 NFL draft, he was not one of the more popular selections of the draft’s first round. He was not viewed as an ideal scheme fit for the Jets’ 3-4 defense, and the team was also believed to have more significant needs to address than adding another defensive lineman.
That decision, once considered to be questionable, has not been questioned much since the NFL season began, even though Richardson is just 10 games into his NFL career. But it is unlikely that even Richardson’s biggest supporters—except for possibly the Jets themselves—saw the defensive lineman starting off his professional career as fantastically as he has this season.
While it remains too early to evaluate the success or failure of each 2013 NFL draft selection, it appears the Jets certainly made one of the draft’s best selections—a steal, even as a top-15 draft pick—because Richardson has been the NFL’s best rookie this season.
Standing Out Immediately
By any measure, Richardson has been a consistent difference-maker for the Jets defense this year. He has been one of the league’s most active and disruptive defensive linemen, making the Jets better on all three downs as both a dominant, powerful run-stopper and an explosive interior pass-rusher.
A hybrid defensive tackle/defensive end who lines up everywhere—from over the center as a nose tackle to the outside of the defensive line as a defensive end—Richardson has made a very high number of plays for a defensive lineman this season, let alone a rookie.
I don’t label myself as one type of defensive tackle. I’m versatile, like I said, that’s one of my main points and that’s why I think they pulled the trigger on me and gave me the phone call. They figured that they could find a place for me to play and be productive.
Richardson leads all interior defensive linemen—and all defensive linemen in total, aside from New England Patriots defensive ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich—with 50 total tackles thus. That total includes 10.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 of which have been sacks, while he also has been credited with one forced fumble and one pass deflection this year.
Pro Football Focus (subscription required), which gives every NFL player ratings for every play of the season and ranks players accordingly based upon their cumulative ratings, ranks Sheldon Richardson as the league’s sixth-best 3-4 defensive end this year, with a cumulative rating of 18.4. More specifically, PFF rates Richardson as the league’s second-best 3-4 defensive end against the run, with a cumulative 20.0 rating.
All of those numbers are simply evidence of the playmaking ability Richardson has consistently shown on the field this season.
Richardson has been able to work his way onto the stat sheet with an unusual regularity for an interior defensive lineman, a position where greatness is rarely measured by statistics. More importantly, Richardson has shown that he can use his size (6’3”, 294 lbs.), strength and quickness to make an impact on more plays than not when he is on the field, including many where he does not record a statistic.
Breaking Down Richardson’s Immediate Impact
Being an interior defensive lineman has less to do with recording statistics than it does creating disruption at the line of scrimmage. But when a player can accomplish the former while consistently doing the latter at a high level, he has the potential to be elite.
Physically, Richardson is the total package for a hybrid defensive tackle/defensive end role in a defensive front that uses both odd and even fronts. He has all the strength and power-generating ability coveted in a defensive tackle. Yet his burst at the line of scrimmage, ability to change direction and pursuit speed are more typical of a linebacker.
As evidenced by his average of five tackles per game and a run-stop percentage of 11.2, which is the fifth-best in the league among 3-4 defensive ends, run defense is where Richardson has truly excelled to start his NFL career.
One of the keys to being a great run-stopper is the ability to maintain gap control and close running lanes. That is an area where Richardson excels. Even when blocked, Richardson does a great job of holding his ground at the point of attack, while he can also slide and maneuver his body to offset blocking movement and create contact in desired running lanes.
The following example against the New Orleans Saints in Week 9 shows that even when an opposing offensive line is initially successful in blocking him, Richardson can fight through the battle and win the play. While a double-team was able to move him to the right and away from the middle running lanes, he re-established himself and filled a gap to shut down Mark Ingram at the line of scrimmage as Ingram attempted to run inside the right tackle:
Richardson fought through an initial double-team to make the play in that example, but on many other occasions, he has allowed his teammates to make a play by drawing a double-team block.
Even on an immensely-talented defensive line that also includes potential All-Pro Muhammad Wilkerson at the other interior defensive end spot and Damon Harrison in the middle at nose tackle, opposing offensive lines are frequently showing Richardson well-deserved respect by assigning double-teams to him, especially when they want to run the ball.
While Richardson holds his gap well, he can also come off the line of scrimmage to make big plays in the backfield, as evidenced by his double-digit tackles for loss total.He jumps quickly off the snap and has a decent array of moves, which he can use to help him beat opposing blockers.
On the following example from Week 11, Richardson paired one of his most effective moves, an over-the-top swim, with an explosive burst off the line to beat Buffalo Bills left guard Doug Legursky to his inside and shut down Bills fullback Frank Summers for a tackle for loss:
Richardson is not just a force inside, either, as he also moves his feet very well in pursuit. He can track a run play to the outside if he has the angle, so teams cannot simply render him ineffective by moving run plays away from him.
An example of that, also from New York’s Week 11 loss to the Bills, came when Buffalo tried to beat Richardson at the line of scrimmage by throwing a screen pass to running Fred Jackson on the outside. Richardson did a terrific job, however, breaking down Bills right guard Kraig Urbik in a one-on-one matchup. He was able to run with Jackson as he split right to catch the pass and then took him down promptly for a one-yard tackle for loss:
Perhaps most importantly, as far as his statistics are concerned, Richardson is a strong tackler. He effectively wraps up ball-carriers, whether they come toward him or he has to track them down, and he does a good job of tackling with his body and driving his weight through the play to utilize his size advantage.
From stuffing a run up the middle to tracking a play down in the open field, Richardson already looks to be one of the NFL’s best run-stopping defensive linemen. The Jets lead the NFL in allowing just 73.2 rushing yards per game, and the addition of Richardson has been a big reason for that.
Potential for Improvement as a Pass-Rusher
While Richardson has proved to be an immediate standout against the run, continued improvement as a pass-rusher will be key for Richardson to emerge as a potential All-Pro. Though his burst off the line and acceleration give him high potential in this capacity, his first 10 games have shown a need for skill development to capitalize upon his pass-rush potential.
Richardson has 2.5 sacks and 20 total quarterback pressures, but his pass-rushing productivity statistic of 5.1 ties him for 17th among the 22 players who are 3-4 defensive ends and have played at least 50 percent of their teams’ pass-rush snaps this season.
Though his athleticism is well-noted, his power has actually been his most effective tool as a pass-rusher. He is a strong bull-rusher who does a very good job in one-on-one situations against guards by getting leverage on his opponent and then using his strength to drive the blocker back toward the quarterback to generate pressure.
As demonstrated above, Richardson can quickly beat a blocker off the line by pairing an explosive burst and a strong move, and that applies to pass-rushing as well it does to run defense.
Where Richardson must improve to meet his full potential is as a second-effort pass-rusher.
This should not be confused with a lack of effort, as it has been clear from Richardson’s activity, both at the line of scrimmage and moving all over the field, that he runs with a high motor throughout a game.
He needs to become better at shedding blocks, however, when his initial move fails to beat a blocker. He has shown to be overly reliant upon hit-or-miss spin and swim moves, and if he does not obtain the leverage to power rush, he struggles to disengage from pass protection.
Finishing His Rookie Campaign Strong
Although his game as a pass-rusher is still developing, it is already clear that Richardson is a three-down player who can make an impact in any capacity of the game. While he is already becoming elite as a run-defender, he can be impactful as a pass-rusher and has shown that he can even drop back into pass coverage, a specialty skill for a defensive tackle.
Who should win the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year award?
As Bleacher Report’s Erik Frenz has noted, Richardson is a leading candidate for the Defensive Rookie of the Year award. He has to finish his rookie season strong to win the award, however, as he has strong competition from other standout players, including Bills inside linebacker Kiko Alonso, San Francisco 49ers safety Eric Reid and Arizona Cardinals defensive back Tyrann Mathieu.
Opposite Wilkerson, Richardson has formed arguably the NFL’s best tandem of interior hybrid defensive tackle/defensive ends. While one could say Wilkerson and Harrison are making Richardson look better by drawing blocks that free up Richardson for more one-on-one opportunities, the same could be said for Richardson making his linemates look better.
Incorrectly pigeonholed specifically as 3-technique defensive tackle for a 4-3 defense by some (including me), Richardson has displayed a skill set that could thrive in any defensive scheme. The Jets are lucky to have him in theirs, as he appears to be well on his way to stardom.
All screenshots were taken using NFL Game Rewind. All illustrations were added by the author. All advanced statistics courtesy of ProFootballFocus.com.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.