In 2012, their target was Tavon Wilson. In 2013, the player of choice was Duron Harmon. Now, in 2015, they picked up an unheralded safety prospect in Stanford's Jordan Richards.
Draft pundits were appalled. In their minds, the Patriots squandered a valuable second-round pick on a relative unknown. They weren't the only ones who were taken by surprise. ESPN.com's Mike Reiss pointed out that the selection "raised some eyebrows in some NFL scouting circles, in part because Richards was viewed by those clubs as a late-round consideration."
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick doesn't really care what scouts think, though. He proves it every time he carries out the aforementioned tradition.
"He’s really smart," Belichick said after a practice in June. "We gave him some information to work on while he was away. He's obviously studied it and worked hard at it. For a guy who wasn’t here, he had a pretty good idea of what we were doing."
In reality, though, the selection of Richards should come as no surprise to those who know how the Patriots select their players. Richards is the perfect Patriots prospect not because he dazzled at the collegiate level, but because he has the mental makeup to succeed at the professional level.
His Stanford teammates regarded him as "Coach Richards," not only because his dad was a coach, but also because he was like a coach on the field, helping everyone get lined up and with checks at the line of scrimmage.
That being said, it seems unlikely that Richards will wow New Englanders on the field as a rookie. Richards faces an uphill battle for playing time, competing with Harmon and Patrick Chung for snaps at strong safety. He also has a limited skill set, fitting in as a run-defending safety due to a lack of athleticism and long speed. But how have other second-round safeties fared in their first year?
Sometimes, the best way to get a glimpse into the future is to look into the past. There weren't that many safeties drafted in the second round from 2011 through 2014—five, to be exact—but we've compiled a list of them all in order to help give us a better understanding of what to expect from a rookie safety.
|2nd-round rookie safeties since 2011|
Each of these five safeties had a chance to start at least two games as rookies. Rahim Moore (Denver Broncos) started seven games, while D.J. Swearinger (Houston Texans) and Jonathan Cyprien (Jacksonville Jaguars) each earned at least 10 starts in their rookie seasons.
The gaudy tackle numbers posted by Swearinger and Cyprien could be indicative of two things: both men were regarded as hard-hitting in-the-box safeties and sure tacklers coming out of college, but also, each player's team ranked in the bottom 10 in the NFL in run defense when they were rookies.
Thus, the high volume of tackles for those two players could be seen as both a positive (for them individually) and negative (as a reflection on the team).
Richards may not get as many opportunities to make tackles. He'll be competing for snaps with established players, and the Patriots' run defense ranked ninth in the league last year. However, he'll be ready when the opportunity comes. He has a reputation as a hard-hitting in-the-box style safety, and as highlighted by NFL.com's Lance Zierlein, that may be his best bet to contribute in his rookie season. He wrote:
"A limited, run-support safety whose coverage issues could be an issue for NFL teams looking for diverse safety play. He's a willing tackler who plays with range in run support, but Richards' lack of instincts and ability to stick receivers in space could limit his NFL opportunities."
Even with all those aforementioned examples, though, there are perhaps no better players to follow than the ones on the Patriots roster. We've seen Belichick make quick use of safeties in the past.
In 2012, Tavon Wilson started four games and played a combined 500 snaps (39.3 percent) on defense, according to Pro Football Focus. In 2013, Harmon (a third-round pick) played 433 snaps (38.9 percent) on defense, while Wilson's snap count shot down to 19.
Richards' skill set most closely resembles Chung's and Wilson's, whereas Harmon's forte is in pass coverage. Thus, while Chung may be the in-the-box safety of the present, Richards could be headed for that role in the long term.
As a rookie, though, the expectations should be kept fairly low. Richards' main contributions will probably be on special teams, and unless there's an injury or someone's performance goes in the toilet, we wouldn't expect more than 20 tackles and maybe a sack and an interception in his first year.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained via team news release.