When the Jets took Richardson 13th overall, the selection caused a lot of pundits to scratch their heads. With all of their needs, why would the Jets select their third defensive end in the first round in as many years?
The Jets may have lost the meaningless draft day grades from pundits, but ultimately, they knew they were getting a far superior player to anyone else on the board.
While they certainly far from a complete team, general manager John Idzik was not in the business of “filling holes” for the sake of filling holes. Idzik followed the old adage of taking the best player available, and that’s exactly what he got.
With tremendous athleticism and quickness, Richardson has the movement skills of a linebacker embodied within a defensive end. This led many to (understandably) peg Richardson as a 4-3 gap-penetrating defensive end in the mold of the great Warren Sapp. However, what made Richardson such a great rookie was not his ability to rush the passer—it was his run defense that separated himself from any other defensive rookie.
The metrics speak for themselves. According to Pro Football Focus, Richardson was the best run-defender at his position not named J.J. Watt. With 52 tackles and 41 “stops,” Sheldon even outperformed his own star teammate, Muhammad Wilkerson, in this category.
Coming out of Missouri, one of the few knocks on Richardson as a prospect has been his ability to defend the run. How has he been able to convert what was one a negative aspect of his game into an overwhelmingly positive area?
More than anything, Richardson’s athleticism helps him stand out from the rest. Because he can get so much momentum going so quickly for a man his size, he is able to convert speed into power with ease, just as he did to blow up this running play against the Falcons.
What makes Richardson such an unusual player is that he is capable of making plays far down the field that other lineman are simply incapable of making. Because he can move so quickly, he runs down plays and makes open-field tackles that even many linebackers are incapable of getting to.
On this play against the Baltimore Ravens, Richardson is lined up as an outside linebacker—another testament to his versatility. The Ravens are set to run a read-option play with their backup quarterback, Tyrod Taylor.
While he is not the most precise passer, Taylor has speed of a wide receiver, and the Ravens are probably salivating at the idea of getting him in a one-on-one situation with a defensive tackle.
Luckily for the Jets, Sheldon Richardson is no ordinary defensive tackle.
The ball is snapped, the Tyrod (smartly) elects to keep the ball and take his chances against a defensive tackle. His speed should easily allow him to get to the edge and pick up a chunk of yards.
Richardson, however, spoils Taylor’splans. His quickness and burst allow him to break down and get to Taylor in the backfield before he even has a chance to get into a footrace with him.
Again, this is a play many linebackers would have trouble making at about 30-40 pounds lighter than Richardson. Richardson is not just gettingthe job done like a veteran as a young rookie—he is transcending what can be expected from a two-gapping defensive end.
As a pass-rusher, Richardson is know for his quickness and ability to penetrate blockers, but what has been most impressive is how strong he plays, thanks to his innate ability to convert his speed and quickness into power at the point of attack.
This play does not result in a sack, but he gets immediate pressure on the quarterback after throwing around the left guard like a rag doll.
Richardson is able to gain so much momentum because his combination of size and speed is almost unheard of for a player of his size.
There were a handful of quality rookie defenders this season, including Buffalo Bills linebacker Kiko Alonso and Atlanta Falcons cornerback Marcus Trufant. They were impact players for their respective teams and deserve recognition for their play.
Richardson, however, was more than just an “impact” player—he set a new standard for 3-4 defensive end play for rookies. His teammate, Muhammad Wilkerson, is known as one of the best at stopping the run from the 3-4 defensive end position, but Richardson actually outplayed him in that area. What he has been able to do in just one season has not been matched since J.J. Watt in 2011, (who coincidentally plays the same position as Richardson).
The scary news for opposing offenses is that Richardson is so athletically gifted that he has not even scratched the surface of what he is capable of doing. If he can continue to build on his outrageously successful rookie campaign, the sky is the limit for Sheldon Richardson.