Vikings offensive line coach Jeff Davidson squeezed into a coach seat on his February flight to the NFL combine. Before the former NFL lineman, who is 6-5, endured an uncomfortable two-hour trip to Indianapolis, his eyes gravitated toward a massive man with dreadlocks maneuvering through the narrow aisle to his seat.
“I didn’t feel so bad when I watched him walk back there,” Davidson said.
Davidson introduced himself, sensing the large man was heading to Indianapolis for a reason. That man was University of Tennessee offensive tackle Antonio “Tiny” Richardson — 6-6 and 340 pounds.
Richardson eventually signed as a free agent with the Vikings after going undrafted because of medical concerns in May. He is now in a four-way battle for a backup roster spot heading into Saturday’s preseason game against the Chiefs.
“It was kind of awkward,” Richardson said of the flight. “I don’t know if I want to say it’s destiny for me to be here, because I still don’t know.”
The Nashville native didn’t just happen to stop in the Twin Cities on a connecting flight. Richardson trained for the combine in the area for two months, routinely driving by Winter Park during his commute to Eden Prairie.
Richardson was encouraged to visit Dr. Josh Sandell at Orthology Inc. to strengthen the left knee he injured during his sophomore season at Tennessee and receive platelet-rich plasma injections.
“I pushed through the whole [sophomore] season; if I would’ve known the severity of [the injury], I probably would not have,” Richardson said.
He was touted as one of the top offensive tackles in the country after his sophomore year with the Vols, despite battling through the injury. Richardson had offseason arthroscopic knee surgery and missed spring camp. Though he started every game as a junior, Richardson regressed in what he called a “subpar” season.
“It was weird because it kind of changed my game a little bit,” Richardson said of the injury. “Now you really have to focus more on the technique part instead of being just a freak athlete.”
Richardson still opted to forgo his senior season, expecting to be selected in the first two days of the NFL draft. The trip to Indianapolis was when Richardson’s stock began to slide, as team doctors at the event expressed concerns about his knees and hips.
“I can’t say all 32 teams blacklisted him, but I know a few teams had him on the do-not-draft list due to the long-term durability concerns,” CBS Sports draft analyst Dane Brugler said. “Based on talent alone, it could be argued he belonged in the draft’s top 50 picks, but injuries killed him.”
Frustration built with each passing round of the draft for Richardson, who ditched his party in Nashville to aimlessly drive around with a friend. He returned near the end of the final round with a clear mind; the Colts showed interest in him late in the draft but took another tackle, Ulrick John of Georgia State.
Richardson opted to return to the Twin Cities and agreed to terms with the Vikings after the draft.
“He’s got a level of athleticism that you don’t find with that big of a guy, typically,” Davidson said. “There was enough there that we saw that gave us reason to bring him here. We were lucky enough to get him as a free agent.”
Davidson said Richardson has made strides in run blocking and pass protections, particularly with his balance and body control, but still has room to grow while in a battle for the backup tackle spot with Austin Wentworth, Kevin Murphy and Mike Remmers.
“The fear that I would have is when guys hit their ceiling and they’re not good enough, then it’s time to move on,” Davidson said. “He has not hit his ceiling. We see room for improvement. Therefore he’s a good, developmental candidate for us.”
Richardson will find out his fate in the next couple of weeks. Teams must trim their rosters down to 75 players by Tuesday and set their 53-man rosters by Aug. 30, although they can stash 10 players on their practice squad the following day.
Richardson has two preseason games left to prove his worth. Regardless of the outcome, “Tiny” — it’s a high school nickname that he had tattooed on his back — still wonders if that February encounter with Davidson was, in fact, destiny.
“I don’t know if it was symbolic or something, but this must be meant to be,” Richardson said.