Since Bill Belichick took over the New England Patriots in 2000, he's invested four 2nd round draft picks on safeties. It wouldn't be a reach to say that each safety has performed at a lower level than their predecessor.
In 2003, Eugene Wilson was drafted 36th overall and started at free safety for the next five seasons, spanning two Super Bowl victories and the 16-0 regular season.
In 2009, Patrick Chung was drafted 34th overall and spent the next four seasons rotating in and out of the starting line-up before spending a season abroad in Philadelphia and returning to the Patriots in 2014.
In 2012, Tavon Wilson was drafted 48th overall and was benched as a rookie after repeating the same mistakes against Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks in the regular season. He's been a special teamer ever since.
This past 2015 draft, the Patriots shocked draftniks when they selected Stanford safety Jordan Richards 64th overall.
Richards was a surprise because most ratings agencies pegged the safety as a 6th round option, even though he was a three-year starter and a First Team All Pac-12 player.
He owned an unimpressive 4.65 40 yard dash (t-4th slowest of any defensive back at the combine) and a possibly even-more-unimpressive 9'3 broad jump (also 4th worst of any defensive back at the combine). His 32-inch vertical was tied for the 2nd worst of any defensive back at the combine.
But he also owned the 3rd best three cone drill of any defensive back at the combine, with an electric 6.74 time, and the 11th best 60-yard shuttle, with an 11.38 time, a mark of exceptional change of direction, endurance, and technique.
Richards' player make-up is pretty well defined. He's not the most fast or the most explosive guy, but he has short range quickness and he works to make sure his technique is flawless to make up for his limited athleticism. He's the type of player that will be one step too late to break-up the play, but he won't allow any big plays by a mental mistake.
Stop me if you think you know how this story ends.
I wanted to evaluate Richards because he was a controversial pick for a couple reasons: 1) he was overdrafted according to the masses; 2) Belichick has whiffed more often than not with defensive backs in the second round.
Here's what I saw from Richards against the Green Bay Packers.
Against the Run
Richards played 44 snaps, but you can count his snaps against the run on two hands. The Packers weren't interested in their run game. For the majority of the Packers rushing snaps, Richards was playing deep safety and wasn't able to have an impact on the play, so his ability is still fairly unknown. He made a couple tackles and he was willing to lower his shoulder to make a play.
He also showed how his intelligence will benefit the Patriots secondary.
Jordan Richards diagnosed and reacted to the play before the snap. Trey Flowers closes the rushing lane. https://t.co/JSmxPJrtsN— Rich Hill (@PP_Rich_Hill) August 17, 2015
You can see Richards rushing towards the line of scrimmage prior to the snap; he knows it's a running play. Fellow rookie Trey Flowers makes a great play with his strength to pinch the rushing lane, forcing the running back to change direction, but Richards was on top of the play, too.
Again, there isn't much to examine since the Packers didn't really run the ball. Eddie Lacy's two big runs came with Pat Chung on the field, Rajion Neal's best run came with Tavon Wilson on the field, and Alonzo Harris' 25 yard touchdown run came on the opposite side of the field from Richards.
Jordan Richards attacks the run. https://t.co/Y60plcwOcf— Rich Hill (@PP_Rich_Hill) August 17, 2015
Richards' willingness to attack the run, and not just sit and respond to the play, will be important to watch because he'll need to continue to trust his instincts to compensate for his lack of comparative athletic ability.
Against the Pass
For the majority of Richards' time on the field, he was defending the pass and he was very comfortable in any role required. He also has a good understanding of field spacing and how to disrupt passing lanes with just his presence.
Solid chess match with Jordan Richards and Aaron Rodgers. Looks like the rookie gets in Rodgers' passing lane. https://t.co/KRDASCrvMC— Rich Hill (@PP_Rich_Hill) August 17, 2015
While the All-22 camera angle isn't available, Richards clearly forces Rodgers to keep clutching the ball longer than he feels comfortable. When people say that "disruption is production" with regards to the defensive line generating pressure, the same applies to the secondary and disrupting possible passing lanes.
Richards spatial awareness is crucial because he doesn't have the physical ability of most other defensive backs in the league. He needs to win with his mind and this play against Rodgers can be considered Exhibit A.
Jordan Richards with a good battle on the goal line. Look for a fade if he faces a better tight end. https://t.co/fykumE1v1H— Rich Hill (@PP_Rich_Hill) August 17, 2015
And this isn't to say that Richards can't win battles when lined up against opposing players. He was on the receiving end of zero targets. In the above video, we can see Richards winning his battle against the Packers tight end in an important goal line scenario. It's very possible that a better and larger tight end could box Richards out on a fade, but the competition by the Patriots rookie is a positive sign to take away.
Jordan Richards doesn't have elite sideline speed, but he saves a big play by knocking the WR out of bounds. https://t.co/FqqFQ5DOkG— Rich Hill (@PP_Rich_Hill) August 17, 2015
The Packers didn't expose Richards' weaknesses in the first game, but shades of what made Richards a weaker draft prospect made themselves known. He doesn't have Devin McCourty or Duron Harmon's speed in deep coverage, so he can't really be considered a single deep safety. While he's competitive, it's only a matter of time until a quarterback drops a pass on the deep sideline that is just out of Richards' reach.
There were other issues with Richards in coverage. He bit on a pump fake that allowed a receiver to get behind cornerback Bradley Fletcher. While the ball fell incomplete, Richards clearly misplayed the route. Additionally, he seemed to be a step behind on an in route when playing in support of the coverage. It's quite possible that he pulled up to avoid beheading the Packers receiver, but based on the tape he appeared a step slow.
Richards spent time at free safety and strong safety in both the single deep and cover two formations. He spent time covering in the slot, he spent time covering on the sideline, and he spent time at outside linebacker. He also featured on all four facets of special teams, placing himself squarely ahead of Tavon Wilson in the depth chart.
Similar to our evaluation of Dominique Easley, it's far too soon to make any sweeping declaration of Jordan Richards. Richards is what he is and he seems to be a solid player. Perhaps additional playing time will allow his instincts to improve so he can be a more viable starter. Perhaps his limited athleticism will lead him to only see the field with the special teams unit.
All remains to be seen.