Three years ago, Sheldon Richardson was a pricey final piece added to a defense that was already one of the league’s best.
His salary will look different in 2021, and so will his role, but he’s still a critical late addition to the Minnesota Vikings’ roster.
Richardson, who signed a one-year, $3.6 million deal, has started 118 out of 121 career games. He may not start one in 2021. For the first time in his nine-year career, he is in line to be a rotational player. Perhaps it’s a demotion for Richardson, who lost a big chunk of cash when the Cleveland Browns cut him as a cap casualty, but it’s an upgrade for the Vikings at defensive tackle.
“I get in where I fit in, simple as that,” Richardson said on a Zoom call. “This will be the first year where I’ve not started, so I’m just getting in where I fit in.”
Minnesota lined up in its passing-down subpackage at Tuesday’s mini-camp practice while Richardson watched from the sideline. Jalyn Holmes and Armon Watts were the interior choices with Dalvin Tomlinson and Michael Pierce off the field — a concerning reality for the Vikings if that was a regular-season game. Holmes was the only defensive end in the NFL last year to get over 600 snaps and not record a sack. Watts is a nose tackle hybrid with just two career sacks in two seasons.
Add Richardson, and suddenly you have a true pass-rushing specialist to spell the run-stuffers Tomlinson and Pierce. His arrival at TCO Performance Center coincided with the reemergence of Danielle Hunter after a brief holdout. The Vikings went from a punchless pass rush on Monday to a potentially formidable pairing on Tuesday, whose stunts could present a nightmare to opposing offensive lines.
“Tremendous talent. I always seem to be playing with some kind of freak-of-nature defensive end for the past five years,” said Richardson. “It’s been great, and the season I had with Danielle was great. His contract’s a little bit bigger now, so that’s the difference between me and Danielle. Other than that, just getting accustomed and acclimated with everybody else on the defensive line. I know what Danielle does and how to play with Danielle. That’s not a problem. Now just making sure I know how to play with everybody else on the D-line.”
Richardson, 30, has yet to see a decline in his pass-rushing capability. He’s been top 20 in pressures the previous four seasons, including the 2018 year in Minnesota, where he played for $8 million. Per Pro Football Focus, his pass-rush grade those four seasons fluctuated between 65 and 70. In Cleveland last year, he saw his snaps increase to a career-high 920 yet retained the same level of pass-rushing productivity.
If there’s been a dropoff, it’s in his run defense, where Richardson posted his two lowest career grades in Cleveland with 11 missed tackles over two seasons. That probably won’t be his concern anymore with the Vikings investing big bucks in big bodies between Tomlinson and Pierce, who should play on most rushing downs. Richardson said he’s a trim 286 lbs., prepared to build on a nearly decade-long career in a new-look role.
“I still want to be one of the dominant guys in the league, like I’ve been,” Richardson said.
Dominant may be a stretch. Solid is probably a fairer word. And at $3.6 million, solid is what the Vikings need.
As a former first-round pick, Richardson may be underappreciated. His journeyman status likely hasn’t helped his reputation despite stats that have remained mostly consistent with only brief blips. Since 2016, he’s played on four teams, oftentimes under big salaries that carried lofty expectations that weren’t fulfilled. He played with the New York Jets for four years, underperformed after being traded to the Seattle Seahawks, was part of a disappointing Vikings team, and was cut early by Cleveland. But his consistency is impressive, considering the circumstances. He’s only played fewer than 15 games once (because of a four-game suspension in 2015), and he’s never had fewer than 33 pressures in a season.
“Sheldon’s a baller,” said safety Harrison Smith. “That was apparent before he got to us the first time, but once he got here, the plays that he could make, just a really athletic guy, has a good feel for the game. Obviously, the news of Danielle [Hunter] coming back, and then it was like, ‘Oh, we got Sheldon too.’ It was a pretty big time for us. He’s an absolute playmaker, and I’m happy he’s back. He’s a great guy in the locker room, always got a smile on his face, and he’s always ready to work.”
Richardson is no stranger to prove-it years. That’s what he has again in 2021. The Vikings get a veteran reinforcement familiar with the system, and he’ll get to focus on the thing he’s best at: pressuring the passer.
Sam Ekstrom covers the Vikings with colleague Matthew Coller at Purple Insider. Check out the Purple Insider Podcast here and consider subscribing to the Purple Insider newsletter for daily Vikings news from credentialed reporters.