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In defense of Jordan Richards

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Jordan Richards wasn’t a draft bust. No, I’m not drunk.

Super Bowl LII - Philadelphia Eagles v New England Patriots Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

It’s Day Two at the NFL Draft, so let’s talk about one of the most infamous second-round selections in Patriots history.

No, your eyes aren’t deceiving you. And no, this lockdown hasn’t caused me to lose any more of the very few brain cells I have left.

I’m here to defend Jordan Richards.

If you’ve been checking in to Pats Pulpit this offseason, I’m sure you’ve seen the highly enjoyable Pats Madness: Draft Bust Edition organized by our very own Pat Lane that just finished up yesterday. 32 players entered, but in the end, Ras-I Dowling ended up beating out Chad Jackson as the single biggest bust of the Bill Belichick era, selected by you, the readers. I’m glad to see that Dowling got the nod, as I will go to my grave screaming from the rafters that Bill Belichick used the single most valuable pick he has ever had on a guy who had 11 career tackles. That it was so close isn’t a shocker, as there was plenty of hype surrounding Jackson when he was drafted, but the people have spoken.

But before we were graced with a Jackson vs. Dowling battle for the ages, one half of the Final Four saw Dowling pitted against a player that many consider the worst selection Belichick ever made, a safety out of Stanford named Jordan Richards. Dowling won the vote, but based on...well, pretty much every comment written on every Pats Madness post these past few weeks...the general consensus is that Richards should be running away with the title of biggest bust and it was nothing short of a farce that he wasn’t in the finals. That he lost out to Dowling had a bunch of folks so surly that they decided to stop voting altogether.

But I disagree. And honestly, I’m surprised he made it as far as he did. Because I don’t consider Jordan Richards a bust. And what better day to make my case than day two of the NFL Draft, with the second round that saw Richards’ name selected just a few short hours away.

Now before I go any further, I want to get this right out now, clear as day, so nobody misinterprets this article:

I’m no Jordan Richards fan. His time in New England was completely forgettable. He was terrible in coverage. Some of the angles he took on the ball were enough to summon a zombie Pythagoras from the dead to feast on Jordan’s brains. He couldn’t tackle. Every time he was on the field on defense, we all held our collective breath. His play in the Super Bowl against the Eagles was a big part of why the Patriots lost that game. Absolutely nobody was sorry to see him go, least of all me.

But to call him a draft bust simply isn’t fair to the guy. Because it simply isn’t his fault.

I understand that, on the surface, Richards qualifies as a bust. The Patriots used a second rounder on him, and he didn’t even come close to playing at the level expected of a player selected that high. But at the same time, this was a guy who had absolutely no business being taken in the second round. He almost certainly would have been there for the Patriots to take in the sixth, the seventh, and possibly even as a free agent once the draft wrapped up. The highest draft grade any expert had on him was the middle of the fifth round, and that was being generous. That Bill Belichick inexplicably decided to take him in the 2nd round meant that the entire football world was suddenly forgetting a middling college career and putting him alongside much more talented players, demanding that he produce from the getgo. Richards should have been a special teamer and rotational safety taken at the very tail end of the 2015 NFL Draft, as that’s exactly how he played during his tenure with New England. His level of play perfectly matched his production in college.

So is it really fair to call him a bust?

As far as I’m concerned, three elements need to be present in order to label a player a bust, and without all three, you can’t accurately apply the title.

One, of course, is how early in the draft a team selects a player; the guys taken early are the ones with the most value attached to their skillsets. After a certain point - maybe towards the end of the fourth round or so - if a player you drafted doesn’t pan out, it’s not really a big deal.

The second, obviously, is how that player performs at a professional level. You either meet your draft status, exceed your draft status, or disappoint based on how well you play at the highest level. If a team takes you first overall, or with their first selection in the draft, you better live up to that selection.

Which brings me to my third point - the level of expectations surrounding that player’s ability to make it in the NFL coming out of college. It’s here where Jordan Richards falls short on the Bust-ometer. Taking 20/20 hindsight and revisionist history away from the discussion, who here had any expectations of him whatsoever that extended farther than “well...Belichick took him in the second, so there must be something there”? Was anyone doing anything other than scratching their heads when his name was called? Even the guys who literally have only job - cover the NFL Draft and have scouting reports on all eligible college athletes - were left scrambling for their notes when New England announced their pick. Nothing about Richards’s college career gave anyone any indication that he’d be a viable NFL defensive starter. “He’d better deliver” was the mantra here, not “I can’t wait to see what he brings to the defense.”

Any way you slice it, Jordan Richards only checks off two boxes. Yes, he was drafted high and didn’t pan out in relation to the pick. But As a special teamer, Richards was serviceable; he was on multiple units, got down the field quickly, and was on the field for over 50% of all ST plays. As a starting safety, he was outmatched, outgunned, and outclassed - exactly what you’d expect from a guy who should have gone in the sixth round. Had Richards just been selected later like he was supposed to, in a round reflective of his play, he’d be nothing more than another rotational safety and core special teamer who Belichick took a flier on late in 2015. His stint with the Patriots would have been unspectacular, not at all memorable, and he would have continued on as a journeyman player trying to eke his way onto a roster and milk his NFL career for all it’s worth. No shame in that game. You can’t all become legends like Nate Ebner (who was drafted in the sixth round. Would he be a massive bust if Belichick took a rugby player in the 2nd?). But since Belichick inexplicably drafted Richards 64th overall, and since Richards was understandably unable to play to the expectations of a 2nd rounder because at no point during his entire football playing career did he ever exhibit that kind of ability, he will forever be labeled as a bust even though nobody even knew who he was prior to draft day.

So does he really deserve all the hate?

If you’re still going to call him a bust and won’t be convinced otherwise, then rock on. The All-22 footage doesn’t lie, you have a case, and there’s nothing I or anyone else can do to stop you. But to say that Jordan Richards should have lived up to his draft status is like saying that Chris Farley should have dominated that Japanese game show. Some people just aren’t where they’re supposed to be.

Was Jordan Richards the most head-scratching pick Belichick has ever made? Absolutely. I don’t deny that for a second. Was he a big swing and a miss? 100%. But I don’t think it’s fair to call him a bust. He was forced to play to a level of expectation that he never once showed he was able to meet. If anything, this is on Belichick, not Richards.

Maybe I’m just overly attuned to having expectations that don’t even remotely align with talent level; as a lifelong underachiever and what my parents lovingly refer to as a “massive, massive disappointment,” I know a thing or two about being forced into situations you have no business being in and in which you couldn’t possibly hope to succeed. But I feel for Richards, and don’t think he deserves so much negative attention.

Especially because it’s almost certain at this point that, long ago, Bill Belichick made a deal with the Celtic god Toutatis and in exchange for success and Super Bowls he must sacrifice a defensive back in the second round of every draft henceforth. If that’s the case, Jordan Richards is one of the most valuable selections this team has ever made.