Earlier today, the New England Patriots filled the open spot on their 53-man roster. They did not, however, do it by making a surprising move: instead of removing tight end Benjamin Watson from the roster exempt list, the team re-signed safety Jordan Richards. The 26-year-old, of course, spent the first three years of his career with the Patriots before getting traded to the Atlanta Falcons shortly before the start of the 2018 season.
Richards does not enjoy the best of reputation among Patriots fans given that he never lived up to his status as a second-round draft pick: he did not have the athletic skillset to work as a deep safety nor the size or consistent tackling abilities to serve as a strong safety/linebacker hybrid. So why did New England bring him back into the fold, more than a year after trading him away for a conditional seventh-round draft pick?
According to head coach Bill Belichick, who confirmed the signing during a press conference earlier today, the Patriots have a role in mind for Richards. How exactly this role will look like remains to be seen but given the overall composition of the active roster at the moment, especially in regards to New England’s deep and talented secondary, it would not be a surprise to see Richards end up playing exclusively in the kicking game.
While his defensive performance was mostly underwhelming during his original three seasons in town, the 64th overall selection of the 2015 draft was actually quite serviceable on special teams: only three other players — Nate Ebner, Brandon Bolden and Brandon King — saw more snaps in the kicking game for the Patriots between 2015 and 2017 than Richards, and he registered 11 tackles as well as a fumble recovery.
The numbers do not stand out, but they are reflective of his standing on the team. The coaching staff trusted Richards to do his job on kicking game, and he oftentimes did no matter if it meant lining up in various spots or just staying disciplined throughout the kickoff and punt coverage process. Just look at it this way: how often did you actually hear Richards’ name called out negatively on special teams compared to defense?
With that being said, though, why would the Patriots feel like Richards can improve their special teams units? A look at the numbers might give us a clue. While New England ranks a solid 15th in yards surrendered per punt return (6.4), the team is only 28th in the same category as it relates to kickoff runbacks: the five kickoffs that were returned against the Patriots gained an average of 30.6 yards.
It looks like Bill Belichick and company see this as an issue that needs to be addressed. In fact, Belichick talked along those lines during his postgame press conference after his team’s game against the Buffalo Bills on Sunday: “Obviously Andre Roberts is top returner in the league. He does a great job, so I thought our coverage teams are really challenged by him on both kickoff and punt coverage. He had a couple good runs on us.”
One of the runs Belichick mentioned was a kickoff return that Roberts brought out to the 37-yard line. And when looking at the tape, one can see that the Patriots were having trouble keeping their lines intact with Chase Winovich and Shilique Calhoun both in a position that allowed Roberts to take the kickoff through the hole in front of him:
Of course, the sample size is a small one and neither Calhoun nor Winovich should necessarily be seen as liabilities when it comes to their kickoff coverage duties. For one reason or another, however, it looks as if the Patriots want to upgrade — and Richards was the available option they felt would work best: “He has experience, he’s a smart kid. He played for us in the kicking game and on defense,” said Belichick on Wednesday.
Time will tell whether or not the experience and intelligence Belichick mentioned will help him turn his career around during this second stint in New England. Some players like Patrick Chung and Jamie Collins Sr. were able to do that. And while Richards lacks the athletic skills and track record of both, he is now in a position to prove that the Patriots made a good choice by bringing him in for another ride.