Sheldon Richardson is on his third NFL team just five years removed from being drafted as the 13th-overall pick.
After moving on from Sharrif Floyd, the Vikings’ own first-round pick who suffered what could be a career-ending knee injury during surgery, the Vikings incur a different kind of risk in Richardson.
Richardson has missed more games to suspension (5) than injury (2) in his five NFL seasons. He was suspended four games prior to the 2015 season for violating the league’s substance abuse policy after testing positive for marijuana. He was then suspended one game for the 2016 season for violating the league’s personal conduct policy. The Jets grew tired of his act and traded Richardson to Seattle just before the start of last season.
“We did a lot of research on that,” general manager Rick Spielman said of Richardson’s off-field issues. “That was maybe two-and-a-half, three years ago. We talked to a ton of people about it. We did, as we always do, as thorough of a job as we can. And after spending almost two days with him, felt very confident that him coming into this culture, into our locker room that he’ll fit right in.”
On the field, Richardson’s value to the Vikings is immense. Spielman said as much with a one-year, $8 million contract (up to $11 million with incentives) for Richardson while trying to manage a salary cap with four cornerstone players — Barr, Hunter, Kendricks and Diggs — entering their contract season.
The 27-year-old defensive tackle comes to Minnesota in what should be his prime. Richardson played well enough for the Seahawks, after being traded to Seattle on Sept. 1, that they tried to keep him. But the Vikings outbid the Seahawks, and see a durable player still reaching his potential. He’s played in 73 of 75 NFL games for which he was eligible.
“There are things we feel technically, because of our coaching staff, that can even take him to another level,” Spielman said. “Not only because of the natural power, but the quick twitch at that position.”
Let’s take a closer look at what the Vikings are getting on the field in Richardson, a nimble interior rusher listed 6-foot-3 and 295 pounds.
Big game vs. Eagles
After signing Richardson, Spielman pointed to his first game for the Seahawks (nine days after being traded) against the Packers. “He was pretty amazing,” Spielman said. But perhaps Richardson’s best game of the season came against the Eagles, when he generated a season-high six pressures on Carson Wentz in Week 13. Richardson also forced a Wentz fumble at the goal line, turning into an Eagles turnover by touchback.
Below, you’ll see Richardson set hard on the left guard’s outside shoulder, allowing Seahawks end Frank Clark to swoop underneath for the sack. The Vikings can use Richardson in similar ways to set up Everson Griffen or Danielle Hunter. Richardson’s speed upfield quickly opens up Clark’s path to the quarterback.
Richardson gave Eagles left guard Stefen Wisniewski a day. It happens quickly below. Richardson gets a hand on Wentz’s back before he misfires low to tight end Zach Ertz.
Finding a home?
Richardson played myriad positions for the Jets, including practice reps at middle linebacker, and couldn’t seem to find a place in the defense. Richardson’s role will be unquestioned in Minnesota alongside nose tackle Linval Joseph, who attracts double teams almost weekly.
Below, Richardson helps force Todd Gurley back inside, but the Seahawks nose tackle is caught in the wash and gets blocked out.
Richardson was quietly one of the league’s best run stopping defensive tackles last season, ranking 15th in Pro Football Focus’ efficiency metrics with 22 stops on 252 snaps. Joseph ranked fifth in the same measurement. Below, Richardson blows up a counter run from the backside. He sheds 49ers right guard Brandon Fusco to halt Carlos Hyde at one yard.
Speed off the snap
For weighing nearly 300 pounds, Richardson has a fast and disciplined first step. His “quick twitch” was referenced more than once by Spielman. After failing to generate significant pressure at the end of last season, the Vikings will look to Richardson to get into the quarterback’s face. Below, you’ll see him first cross scrimmage with an equally fast Seahawks line.
Despite his reputation as a disruptive force, Richardson has just 19 career sacks, including 2.5 sacks in the last two seasons. Richardson is a powerful bull rusher, and he uses it to generate a respectable amount of pressure on quarterbacks. However, it hasn’t generated a ton of takedowns. Below, he drives the Falcons left guard into the backfield during the incompletion.
Below, the Seahawks run a twist on the right side of the Cowboys line. Richardson drives right tackle La’el Collins into Dak Prescott, but the ball is out.
The Vikings also had Richardson watch game tape of their defense, specifically to see “how our guys run to the ball,” according to Spielman, and they came away thinking he’d fit. Richardson’s former Jets coaches had public critiques of their top pick, but effort wasn’t a popular criticism. Below, Richardson nabs his first career NFL interception with a quick read, react and catch on a botched Rams screen.