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How Sheldon Richardson Can Improve the Vikings Defense - And Vice Versa

Seattle Seahawks v Green Bay Packers Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Sheldon Richardson had a dominant season in 2014, after being drafted #13 overall the year before by the Jets - and being named the 2013 Defensive Rookie of the Year. But following that season, things didn’t go quite as planned for Richardson. While he still had productive seasons, he didn’t match his 2014 dominance that led him to the Pro Bowl.

He started off 2015 with a 4 game suspension for violating the league substance abuse policy (marijuana), and ended up missing a total of 5 games that season, which was also his least productive. The Jets also started moving him around more that year. In 2016, the Jets moved him to playing more 3-4 outside linebacker and 4-3 DE rather than inside, in a curious move not really helpful to his productivity. He also served another 1-game suspension for violation of the league personal conduct policy to start the 2016 season. Those suspensions, along with a rift with Jets WR Brandon Marshall, which drew the ire of Jets head coach Todd Bowles, may have prompted the Jets to ultimately part ways with Richardson, who hadn’t been as productive since 2014. The Jets picked up his 5th year first-round rookie deal option, but they began shopping him shortly thereafter as well.

Dallas, Washington, Denver and Seattle all reportedly had interest in acquiring Richardson at one point or another during the 2016 season and 2017 draft, but ultimately a deal was not done until just before the regular season opened last year, with the Seahawks trading Jermaine Kearse and a 2nd round draft pick in exchange for Richardson’s services for the rest of the year. Presumably the Seahawks felt they could re-sign him if he did well, but that was not the case and they were left holding the bag when the 27-year old Richardson signed with the Vikings.

Richardson’s deal with the Vikings is a one-year, $8 million deal - not including incentives. Those include bonuses of $667K for 6 sacks, $1.3 million for 8 sacks, $2 million for 10 sacks, $500K for the Pro Bowl, and $1 million for first-team All-Pro. So, a 10-sack year with Pro Bowl and All-Pro nods would yield Richardson an additional $3.5 million, in addition to his $8 million base pay.

Importantly, Richardson has had nothing but positive comments about the Vikings and his new teammates. VEN’s Mike Wobshall commented that he’s seen a lot of new veterans come into camp before, and Richardson seemed remarkably more positive in his demeanor than others. In today’s press conference, Mike Zimmer had nothing but positive comments (starting about the 7:40 mark) about how Richardson has done so far in OTAs and the first day of minicamp, how well he’s fit in the system, with teammates, and was optimistic about how things will work out with him - although reserving judgment until the pads come on.

Richardson himself has commented that things are going well with his fellow D-linemen, and it appears he and Linval Joseph have developed a good relationship, and Everson Griffen as well. Those two guys on either side of Richardson - Joseph the more soft spoken leader and Griffen the more outspoken captain - may help Richardson in more ways than one in his career as a Viking.

What Sheldon Richardson Brings to the Vikings Defensive Front

While the early buzz on Richardson is auspicious for his performance come September, he brings more substantial things to the Vikings defensive front as well.

  • First, his worst season as a pro was substantially better than Tom Johnson’s best year - and TJ had nearly his best season last year. Richardson’s best season is equal to that of Griffen and Joseph.
  • Second, Richardson brings more length and athleticism to the 3-tech position for the Vikings than anyone since Kevin Williams. Williams had more power, Richardson more speed/agility. Here is a comment from his draft profile back in 2013:

Scouts like the light feet Richardson shows for his size, as he is able to twist inside and chase plays to the sideline with great speed. That agility, combined with his length, makes him a strong tackler in close quarters. Richardson’s first step off the snap, especially when lined up over the ball, is quite impressive; he gets into the backfield in a heartbeat, beating reach-blocks and will work his way through double-teams if he sees the ball in the quarterback’s hands. He plays with leverage at the point of attack at times despite his height, holding his ground and wrestling with attitude.

Richardson has since shown these same strengths throughout his NFL career-to-date. Here is some tape and good analysis done by Field Gulls on Richardson during his stint with the Jets that is more relevant for him in a 3-tech spot with the Vikings:

  • Third, Richardson has the off/pre-season to get acclimated to the Vikings system, and has had a year in Seattle to get used to the 3-tech spot in a 4-3 front. It’s worth pointing out that Richardson did not have any kind of off/pre-season with the Seahawks last year, as he was traded a week before the regular season started. Moreover, he also switched from playing in a 3-4 front with the Jets, to a 4-3 front in Seattle. That meant a different set of responsibilities he had to learn on the fly after he landed in Seattle, which showed up in his first few games. Thereafter, Richardson looked to be improving as the year went on until the Jacksonville game where he was ejected, and the last two games - after Seattle was pretty much out of the playoff picture. Below is some tape and analysis of Richardson last playing 3-tech in Seattle.

All this suggests that Richardson brings the full package of high-level run stop and pass rush ability to the 3-tech spot for the Vikings - something that has been lacking since Mike Zimmer took over as head coach and de facto defensive coordinator.

What the Vikings Bring to Sheldon Richardson

While Richardson certainly upgrades the talent at the 3-tech position, the Vikings may also bring some things to help Richardson improve his productivity as well over recent years.

  • First, the Vikings have arguably the best D-Line coach in the NFL in Andre Patterson. He should help Richardson improve in both his technique and using his strengths to his advantage.
  • He’ll also likely help from a scheme perspective to utilize him best, both by allowing him to master the 3-tech spot, take advantage of one-on-one match-ups, and not relying as much on twists to generate pressure - as was the case at times in Seattle.
  • Secondly, Richardson will be helped by having top quality line-mates at every position. Having a solid outside rush from both DEs can sometimes lead to sacks for an interior linemen if he’s able to shed his block as a QB steps up to avoid the outside pressure. That also helps in run defense when the DE sets the edge, NT absorbs double-teams, restricting the RB’s options and allowing Richardson to get off his block and make a play.
  • Third, the Vikings have a top secondary that can force a QB to hold the ball at times. That creates extended opportunities for defensive linemen like Richardson to pressure the quarterback.
  • Lastly, the Vikings have some high-quality veteran defensive linemen like Linval Joseph, Everson Griffen and Brian Robison who, along with coaches Andre Patterson and Mike Zimmer, can help Richardson avoid some of the distractions and miscues that have hurt him at times - whether on-the-field, off-the-field, or in the locker room. The Jets and more recently the Seahawks haven’t had that type of professional environment which Richardson may benefit from.

Richardson has had some of these things since coming into the league in 2013, but never all at once. Surrounded by a quality team around him, and at a position he is well suited to succeed at - and has shown success at in previous years - could lead to both a more productive 3-tech spot for the Vikings this year, and a more productive Sheldon Richardson than he has been in recent years as well.

It seems like a good set-up for both Richardson and the Vikings - we’ll see how that plays out come September.