In part because of his unrivaled job security, Bill Belichick has the license to take greater liberties than any head coach in the NFL. The New England Patriots have a track record of unconventional personnel decisions, but they can assure the public with a wink, smile and their yearly win totals, which always survive whatever questionable decisions the Hoodie has made.
This year's selection of Jordan Richards in the second round certainly qualifies for that kind of skepticism. A box safety whose skill set appears incongruous against today's spacing-based passing games, Richards was the Patriots pick everyone labeled as a reach. NFL.com projected him as a Round 6 or Round 7 selection, while NFL Draft Scout was only marginally more generous in giving him a Round 5 or Round 6 projection.
And yet, Richards does have some redeeming qualities to his game that could make him the most logical safety candidate to start next to Devin McCourty this season. The Stanford product certainly won't earn that role by default, as the Pats are quite deep at the position with the rejuvenated Patrick Chung and recent draftees Tavon Wilson, Duron Harmon and Nate Ebner.
However, based on Richards' film and what the Pats might be looking for in a McCourty sidekick, there are multiple reasons to think the unexpected second-rounder could once again surprise this summer.
What's the Role?
Before we fulfill the title of this article, we should probably first explain what kind of role is up for grabs. Strong safety doesn't hold the same connotation as it used to, with teams increasingly relying on safeties with interchangeable skill sets.
The Patriots weren't one of those teams last season, though, carving out distinct free safety vs. box safety roles in their single-high coverage schemes. In his return to Foxborough, Chung excelled playing near the line of scrimmage, often dropping down in the box even when the Pats played their nickel personnel:
As someone who has always been unafraid to initiate contact, Chung thrived in a more forward-moving role. Including the postseason, Chung made 58 tackles on rushing plays, the third-highest total on the team, per Pro-Football-Reference. That number blew away the rest of New England's defensive backs; for reference, fellow starters McCourty, Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner combined for 53 tackles against the run.
Though he was never known for his coverage ability, Chung also moved into the slot on clear passing occasions. Sometimes he covered traditional slot receivers on these assignments, as he does in the screenshot below, and other times he lined up over tight ends that had split away from the core of the formation.
Those coverage assignments dissipated more toward the end of the season, however, especially after the Green Bay Packers helped expose some of Chung's speed and ball-skill limitations in the deep half. Consequently, we rarely saw Chung covering a deep-half zone, as a safety would in Cover 2 or Quarters, for example. Part of this was obviously schematic, but when the Pats did play two-deep, Duron Harmon was typically the safety who assumed that responsibility.
Of course, the Pats aren't likely to play the same exact style of coverage they did in 2015, even if Belichick would surely like to keep man principles in the playbook. I've repeatedly suggested the futility of guessing what the Patriots have planned for their coverages, but it's safe to assume that the starting safety next to McCourty will need to occupy a more diverse role than what Chung generally fulfilled last season.
Think of Steve Gregory, a two-year starter next to McCourty from 2012-13. Gregory didn't play many snaps in the box in part because of his size, but he possessed the awareness to wear a variety of hats in coverage. Whether lurking as the underneath robber or sinking into the deep half, Gregory always exhibited the ability to carry out versatile assignments, even if his unspectacular game never garnered much appreciation.
Like Gregory, Richards' greatest asset is his football intelligence. Thus, is it possible that he could develop into a similar role, if that is indeed what the Patriots have planned for 2015?
Why Richards Fits
On the surface, some might not see Richards as an ideal fit for the strong safety position if it becomes more coverage-oriented in 2015. Lance Zierlein, who wrote the aforementioned NFL.com scouting report, labeled Richards as a player who "displays obvious coverage limitations" due to "below average instincts when asked to play deep safety." Certainly that sounds far from encouraging for a player who was the third safety off the board (excluding Damarious Randall, whom the Green Bay Packers are converting to cornerback).
And yet, based on game tape from Draft Breakdown, Stanford generally utilized Richards as the weak-side deep safety in their Cover 2 man schemes. As Alen Dumonjic describes in this excellent film analysis, Richards generally positioned himself to make plays on the ball due to his greatest asset, his football intelligence:
Richards had made all of the defensive calls and checks in Stanford’s defense in his senior season. He made sure the defensive linemen heard whether they were in a three- or four-man front, whether the linebackers had to pattern match or spot drop, whether the coverage was single high or split-field safeties. He controlled calls against up-tempo offenses...and had played each of the six defensive back positions, including both safety spots and emergency cornerback.
That kind of versatility and headiness doesn't show up all the time, since Richards isn't your prototypical, rangy center fielder. However, he flashed impressive support defense at times, bailing out his cornerback who had lost body position to the receiver on both screenshots below:
Richards has shown the capability to play Quarters coverage, which minimizes his lack of ideal agility by giving him a predefined read on which route concept he'll need to cover. In that sense, Quarters is a type of "pattern match man" coverage—one that initially starts out as zone before turning to man once a defender identifies which route is his responsibility. It's a scheme that should accentuate Richards' intelligence, while also protecting him a bit from offenses who might target his side of the field initially.
If Richards does end up playing snaps in the box, he's shown a physical downhill edge, much like Chung. Some of Richards' most disruptive plays on film came when he identified wide receiver screens and beat the blockers to the spot to take down the ball carrier behind the line of scrimmage.
However, as the last screenshot shows, Richards' lack of agility can come back to haunt him in the open field. He's not as sure a tackler when he needs to chop his feet in the open field, as De'Anthony Thomas blew by him fairly easily on the aforementioned play. Thomas is a rare burner, of course, but he's also not unusual for the type of athletes Richards will need to take down in the NFL.
Seeing Richards with so many coverage responsibilities defied my expectations when I sat down to watch his tape. Those only came from three games, of course, and the 2014 Notre Dame cut-ups were actually stolen from Alex Carter's tape. However, Richards almost exclusively lined up in the deep half or in the slot, rather than the hybrid linebacker role many associate with the strong safety position.
Richards didn't get targeted much in the slot from the games I saw, so it's hard to judge his cornerback capabilities, but he doesn't seem to possess the quick-twitch movements to cover NFL-level slot receivers. His bulk (5'11", 211 lbs.) should theoretically allow him to hold up in the box, but it's presumptuous to pencil him into a full-time role there without having played many snaps near the line of scrimmage at Palo Alto.
So if Richards' strengths don't necessarily align with the role Chung fulfilled last season, he wouldn't seem to represent a natural replacement. However, based on the possible evolution of the safety spot opposite McCourty, his more direct competition could be another player on the roster.
Sizing Up the Competition
Despite his bounce-back campaign in 2014, Chung won't be guaranteed a starter's spot this fall. He's their best run safety and most experienced safety on the roster, which should give him the inside track to play in "big nickel" personnel at the worst.
However, if the strong safety spot becomes more coverage-oriented, third-year pro Duron Harmon could actually become an early favorite for the starter's spot. Harmon carved out a role in those big nickel packages, as well as dime personnel, by the end of last season.
Intriguingly, Harmon often replaced McCourty in the deep half when the free safety went down to cover the slot. Belichick wasn't too interchangeable with his safeties last season, but versatility is always a plus in New England's game plans. While the former cornerback didn't spend much time in the slot, there were a few instances (especially at the end of the season) when Harmon moved to McCourty's old spot, in both single-high and two-high coverages:
Richards simply adds another layer to that versatility. In the screenshots above, he played both the McCourty role (slot corner) and Harmon role (deep safety) with regularity at Stanford. His arrival simply provides Belichick more options in how he arranges his defensive backs. If Richards proves competent in carrying out his assignments, Belichick could be more creative with McCourty, who could be asked to wear more hats for the secondary in 2015.
Although some draft scouts might scoff at the notion of Richards playing regular snaps in deep-half coverage, Harmon himself also wasn't seen as a primary coverage option coming out of Rutgers. Based on each player's pro day results, Harmon and Richards resemble similar prospects (though the latter appeared more explosive), suggesting that the Pats could also buck conventional wisdom in their utilization of the Stanford safety:
|Harmon vs. Richards, Pro Day Numbers|
|40 Time||Short Shuttle||Vert. Jump||Broad Jump|
|Duron Harmon (2013)||4.51||4.40||36"||10'5"|
|Jordan Richards (2015)||4.59||4.32||34 1/2"||9'0"|
|via NFL Draft Scout|
In fairness, Harmon hasn't emerged as a bona fide starter yet, so it's not correct to label New England's decision the correct one just yet. It's also worth mentioning Tavon Wilson, who has yet to emerge defensively in his first three seasons but also received some time in dime packages last season. According to snap counts from Football Outsiders, Harmon played 279 defensive snaps last season, while Wilson played 183 snaps.
Like Richards, both safeties were surprise second-round selections whom many labeled as overdrafted at the time. Though Harmon and Wilson have each carved out niches, particularly on special teams, neither has provided a profitable return on that high investment. It's forgivable if Pats fans felt a sickening deja vu at Richards' selection in the draft.
I won't insult anyone's intelligence by ending this piece with the "In Bill We Trust" schtick. Belichick makes his fair share of mistakes, and when it comes to defensive back evaluation, the Patriots have been absolutely abysmal. Harmon and Wilson are nice, unselfish fringe players to have around to fill out a depth chart, but neither has emerged as the difference-maker his draft status would suggest.
But it is also unfair to dismiss Richards on that premise without seeing him play a snap. New England will need more creativity to cover up some of its defects on the back end, and Richards' combination of versatility and playing intelligence gives him an opportunity to play multiple roles. It almost certainly won't coalesce perfectly by Week 1, and there's a solid chance we'll ultimately see this as an overdraft. For 2015, though, Richards is an intriguing dark horse who could work his way into regular snaps by season's end.
Sterling Xie is an NFL Featured Columnist whose work has also appeared on Football Outsiders and Advanced Football Analytics. Sterling is a co-author of the Football Outsiders Almanac 2015, coming out mid-July.