Everyone, please join in a collective sigh of frustration so we can move on with the analysis.
Yes, guard A.J. Cann was on the board. Yes, Richards was regarded as a possible 7th round pick. Yes, this is confusing.
Richards joins safety Duron Harmon (3rd round, 2013), safety Tavon Wilson (2nd round, 2012), and edge defender Jermaine Cunningham (2nd round, 2010) as Bill Belichick's annual Wait, who is this guy? Wasn't he a seventh round prospect? OH COME ON! Award winner.
There's absolutely no way to justify the selection of Richards this early based on draft status. This was a tremendous reach from all angles. Instead, let's look at why the Patriots picked him and what his projected role will be in the defense.
Richards is a two year starter at safety and, like Tavon Wilson, he was asked to cover in the slot, to play strong safety in the box, to play two-deep safety, and to cover as the single high safety. Like Duron Harmon, Richards performs fairly well and takes good angles to the ball carrier. Like Pat Chung, Richards packs a terrific wallop inside the box.
He was known as the smartest guy on the Stanford roster and was able to explain the playbook to his struggling teammates. He was a leader, a versatile defender, and a well-respected competitor.
When he plays the pass, he does a good job of staying in position to deter a pass into his coverage area. When targeted, he lacks the burst and closing speed to intercept wayward passes. It's possible that he could become more of a target when he's the weakest defensive back on the field.
Against the run, Richards does a great job squaring the ball carrier and driving them into the ground- no arm tackles at all. That said, there are times where his physical limitations are extremely evident when shifty running backs can get him to over-commit in one direction, and he lacks the recovery to stay in the rushing lane.
Richards lacks the top end speed, so it would be dangerous to play him as a cover one safety in the NFL. He would be better off at the same depth as, or closer to the line than the second safety on the field. His three cone time of 6.74 ranked third out of all defensive backs at the combine, which is a clear tool in his skill set that allows him to be a successful slot corner.
There were multiple times last season where the Patriots wanted to feature Pat Chung in the slot, but he was inconsistent in his performance. Don't be surprised if Richards eventually beats out Chung to be the starting safety alongside Devin McCourty.
A potential projection would be playing both Richards and Harmon as the Cover Two safeties, while McCourty slides up to cornerback across from the player who wins the Bradley Fletcher/Logan Ryan/Malcolm Butler/Alfonzo Dennard/Kyle Arrington CB2 sweepstakes. If the Patriots potentially dangerous front seven can generate quick pressure, it would go a long way in masking coverage deficiencies, and Richards does a good job taking away the quick pass.
No matter how you slice it, Richards, the 2nd rounder, was overdrafted based upon all draft reports. But Richards, the player, could absolutely carve out a role in this secondary.