Because the Minnesota Vikings signed Kirk Cousins to the largest contract in history (at the time), the addition of defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson a few days later came with less coverage and fanfare.
Still the move pumped up expectations for the Vikings’ defense following their No. 1 ranking in yards and points last season. While head coach Mike Zimmer’s defense does not currently have the same type of numbers it boasted in 2017, there’s an argument to be made that Richardson has been their best player.
The former New York Jet is Pro Football Focus’s highest graded defensive player on the Vikings this season, just ahead of Linval Joseph and Danielle Hunter. His 22 QB pressures ranks him sixth among all defensive tackles (per PFF) and he has been at the center of a run defense that ranks seventh in yards per carry allowed and sixth by PFF grades.
“There has been some plays that a lot of people don’t recognize that I see on tape that I’m like, ‘That is a heck of a play,’” Zimmer said. “Everyone sees the sacks and the hits on the quarterbacks. But they don’t see sometimes when you split the double team and you make a tackle or you run 20 yards down the field to make a tackle. Those things are impressive to me.”
Richardson’s performance matches up with exactly what the Vikings expected when they added him to an already-stacked defensive line. Back on March 16, Zimmer couldn’t keep a grin off his face as he introduced Richardson at TCO Performance Center.
“Sheldon was a guy who has been and even was this past season, one of the most disruptive defensive linemen in the NFL in order to get the quarterback off the spot,” Zimmer said in March. “He didn’t have a lot of sacks but as I’ve said before, sacks are not our number one goal. It’s about disrupting the quarterback and getting him off his spot and getting him off timing…We’ve sat down and watched a lot of film and we feel very comfortable about our ability along with his talent level that we can continue to take him to the next level.”
His game has gone to another level from his time in Seattle. During his lone year as a Seahawk, Richardson pressured the quarterback on 9.3 percent of his pass rushes. This year he’s upped that rate to 11.8 percent of snaps. PFF also grades him as a more effective run defender, which might be impacted by the presence of Linval Joseph.
The ability to disrupt opposing quarterbacks has helped make up some of the difference for a defense that has had its ups and downs with coverage and scheme. Richardson has put a hit on the opposing quarterback each week, including three against Aaron Rodgers in Week 2 and topped out at seven pressures in one game.
The Vikings couldn’t have asked for much more than that from a one-year, $8 million signing.
On Sunday Richardson will return to a place where he was both a star and a disappointment.
In the first three years of his career, the 28-year-old defensive tackle picked up 20 sacks and graded by PFF standards as an elite run stuffer. But his play dipped at times over the final two seasons in New York. Inconsistency combined with a suspension, an alleged street racing incident and a reckless driving charge less than a year later was too much for the Jets.
Richardson’s time in Minnesota has been much less volatile than it was in New York.
“I’ve been really impressed with Sheldon,” Zimmer said. “Not just his play, but the way he’s come in here and try to learn the techniques we are trying to teach him. His professionalism, how he handles himself in the meetings. He’s been really good with everything.”
This week, Richardson took responsibility for his off-field issues as a Jet.
“It’s kind of self-inflicted wounds and just me not overcoming my personal battles in life that got me out of there and that changed everything around there,” Richardson said. “That’s pretty much it and I pretty much grew from everywhere. At every phase of my life I grew from it.”
Richardson’s past would suggest it’s too soon to anoint him as either the key to the Vikings’ defense over the next 10 weeks or a player the team should fully buy into with a long-term contract. But he is on that path.
And with injuries on defense and offense through the roof throughout the league, the Vikings will need every bit of Richardson’s disruptive abilities in order to compete for the NFC North title and beyond.