A Closer Look at Sheldon Richardson and the Jets Defense

Mike Nolan takes a deeper look at New York Jets draft pick Sheldon Richardson to see where he fits in Rex Ryan’s defense

The Jets’ second first round pick last night left a lot of people scratching their heads.  The concern wasn’t focused on Sheldon Richardson’s talent, but focused on the fact that they selected a defensive lineman in the first round for the third straight year despite more urgent needs at other positions. No matter what you think about the selection, it’s important to take a look at what Richardson could bring to the Jets defense before completely passing judgment.

The mainstream draft gurus commonly had Richardson ranked behind Sharrif Floyd and Star Lotulelei at the Defensive Tackle position.  However, several of the respected lesser known draft gurus like Bleacher Report’s Ryan Lownes had him ranked as the top defensive tackle in the draft and a top 5 pick.  Obviously, the Jets shared the opinion of the lesser known draft analysts.  Reports indicate that the Jets had Richardson ranked in their top 4 prospects and for good reason.

Richardson is an excellent one-gap defensive tackle; arguably the best in this draft.  He is best when the scheme allows him to fire off the ball through the gap he is responsible for.  It allows him to get off the ball extremely quick and eliminates the hesitation that comes with taking on blocks and reading the play.  Because of playing in this scheme, he has really developed some of the moves you need to be a penetrator.  He has an excellent rip move and a good swim move that he uses both to stuff the run and put together a pass rush.

Richardson’s athleticism is astounding.  He was a 3 sport star in high school and was a tight end before exclusively playing defensive line in junior college.  When watching film on Richardson, it is rare to find a kid that can pursue the way he does from the defensive tackle position.  The amount of tackles he makes down field and outside the tackle box is incredible.  Once he realizes that a running play is not coming inside the tackle box, he plays like a middle linebacker.  He can cover the field sideline to sideline from the defensive tackle position.

His main weakness comes through when he is taking on blocks, particularly double teams.  He is savvy when there are holes in an offensive line’s double team technique, but when a solid double team comes at him, he has trouble holding his ground.  Although he played at 310 last year, he looks a lot lighter than that on the field and doesn’t have a great anchor.  As with any penetrating tackle, he can get caught on down blocks and knocked out of the gap he is responsible for.

While the Jets are considered a 3-4 base defense, they really play a multiple defensive front.  They will run 3-4, 4-3, 4-4, and the 46 among other fronts.  In 2012, they played more 4 man fronts than I can remember.  The drafting of Sheldon Richardson could be the next step in this shift to using 4 man fronts.  It is clear than Richardson cannot be a two gap nose guard in a base 3-4 defense.  He would be more of a five technique.  But his strength is still as a penetrating 3 technique in a 4 man front.  With the departure of Mike DeVito they lost their 3 technique in the 4 man front.  Richardson was needed to fill that spot.  Quinton Coples struggled against the run on the inside at times, but showed a lot of promise at the end of the season when asked to bump outside. Kenrick Ellis is too big and slow to play in the Jets’ 4 man front packages. With this move and the Jets hinting that they weren’t even thinking about a 3-4 OLB type pass rusher at 9 or 13, they may be ready to make the full transition to a predominantly 4 man front.

The 46 is also still a major part of the Jets defensive scheme.  While Richardson can’t be a nose guard in a base 3-4, he can play nose guard or the 3 techniques in the 46.  The inside 3 in the 46 could be a dominating group with Richardson, Wilkerson, and Ellis covering up the center and guards.  A penetrating 4 man front could be special with Coples, Wilkerson, Richardson, and Calvin Pace, Ricky Sapp or someone they take later in the draft.  If nothing else, the Jets could now have a deep, young collection of defensive linemen that could progress into one of the top groups in the NFL, particularly in the middle.

While it was a confusing pick for a lot of Jets fans, it may be because the Jets have made a shift in defensive scheme right under our noses.  The pick of Richardson gives them more versatility up front as they continue to stock talented, versatile defensive linemen.  It will give Rex Ryan even more flexibility to run the multiple fronts that he wants to run in 2013.

Author: Mike "Tiny" Nolan

Mike is a graduate of Muhlenberg College where he was a team captain and All-American Center on the football team. Mike is a former NFL Films employee where he was a PA for the NFL Network shows Playbook and Total Access. He also worked at NBC Sports and now does some free lance producing for them. He lives in the Philadelphia area where he is a football coach at The Haverford School.