By: Steve Balestrieri
The Patriots begin training camp on Thursday morning, the rookies are already in camp and the veterans report tomorrow, (although Tom Brady is already there). We’ve been highlighting the various positional battles that will be ones to watch once the pads come on, but another intriguing will be at safety.
Specifically on how does 2nd round draft pick Jordan Richards fit into the Patriots plans this season. Richards was picked up from Stanford. Most draft experts and fans thought that Bill Belichick reached for Richards early with the 64th overall selection.
With the top three safety options with starters Devin McCourty, Pat Chung as well as Duron Harmon returning, safety wasn’t deemed that big of a need. The team also has Tavon Wilson and Nate Ebner returning although they’ve contributed more on special teams.
Last season playing more of a Cover-1 scheme, the Patriots utilized more of a one deep safety look with McCourty playing the center field role. That allowed Chung to play closer to the box, which for him is a strength and the results spoke for themselves. Now with cornerbacks Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner, Kyle Arrington and Alfonzo Dennard gone, the scheme is expected to change.
With more zone looks this season, the Patriots may opt for more of a Cover 2 look with two deep safeties at the back end of the secondary. While this is not necessarily a strength of Chung’s, it is something that has been the area where most expect Harmon to step up.
Last season, when the Patriots would move McCourty to the slot, Harmon would step in and play the deeper safety role, so where does Richards fit into the equation?
Richards was projected to be a late round draft pick but Bill Belichick is never one to follow conventional wisdom. He saw something in the Cardinals’ safety that others didn’t and the Patriots jumped on him with the last pick in Round 2 of the 2015 NFL Draft.
Richards is a physical, extremely intelligent player who, like McCourty made all the calls for the Stanford secondary. In a great piece on Richards, Allen Dumonjic writes that Richards calls didn’t just end with the secondary.
“Richards had made all of the defensive calls and checks in Stanford’s defense in his senior season. He made sure the defensive linemen heard whether they were in a three- or four-man front, whether the linebackers had to pattern match or spot drop, whether the coverage was single high or split-field safeties. He controlled calls against up-tempo offenses, according to Akina, and had played each of the six defensive back positions, including both safety spots and emergency cornerback.”
While others were worried about his measured speed and instincts at the NFL level, the Patriots …obviously are not. Because he knows everyone’s responsibilities in the defense, his reaction time should be much quicker. He was known by the other Cardinals players as “Coach Richards”.
He even helped his secondary coach Duane Akina, who was a late hire by Stanford to learn the Cardinals defense and secondary calls to bring him up to speed.
Chung has a contract extension and is the returning starter at strong safety but Richards best fit is there as well. Like Chung he’s very physical as well as willing and able plug in run support.
He has very good play recognition and is able to sniff out screens and dumpoffs and is quick to come up in support. He’s not a deep cover safety with his lack of speed (4.59 in the 40), although in Stanford he did play there and in the slot.
With his size and physicality, Richards could find a role in the linebacker/safety hybrid slot in sub-packages. Like Chung he’s at his best as an in the box type safety. And his athleticism, while knocked, belies a good time in the 3-Cone Drill. The Patriots have always coveted players more with impressive 3-Cone times rather than straight line speed because it shows the ability to change direction quicker.
But he has to capability to be more, if the Patriots choose to play a quarters type coverage in the secondary, Richards could handle that with ability to diagnose plays quickly and knowledge of the defense.
In an interview with WEEI’s Chris Price, Akina his secondary coach summed Richards in this way.
“We asked our safeties to do quite a bit. He has ability and flexibility — he’s not just a box safety. He can be a physical guy. He can line up in the slot and play man coverage,” Akina said. “It’s an insult to call him a box safety. As a collegian, he worked hard on all aspects of defensive back play, including man coverage. He’s been engaged in a lot of concepts.”
“People have no idea. Everyone wants to measure how tall guys are or how fast they are. And some measurables are important. But at the same time, if you understand that Jordan doesn’t run a 4.37 like Earl Thomas, that’s OK, but you also have to understand that he plays at 4.37 speed because of his intellect.
“In a system like the one in New England that will put stress on safeties and their abilities to make the right call at the right time, you just can’t go out and find guys like Jordan. You just can’t find guys like that who make plays like that and have that decision-making ability like he has.”
“I’ve coached some safeties over the years, and I think everybody in New England will be pleased with Jordan.”
Richards will have to earn his reps, Chung isn’t going anywhere for the time being and for at least the start of the season, he’ll have to work on special teams. But there is plenty of room for him to grow and Richards can do a lot of different things on the field. Now he just has to go out and earn it.
Number 37 for the Patriots will be a guy that will definitely be on the radar to watch during training camp.
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