Throughout the offseason, people who follow the Cowboys have opined that they need to improve specific positions: offensive line, safety and defensive line. Today we'll begin our month-long series with a look at a man who would offer a significant D-line improvement, Missouri DT Sheldon Richardson. Richardson was a much-ballyhoed recruit coming out of high school; recruiting experts rated him as the nation's top defensive tackle prospect and a top five overall talent (he had 19 sacks as a senior, adding eight touchdowns as a tight end!). However, he was unable to check off the requisite academic boxes to obtain admission and insteasd opted for the junior college route, enrolling at a JuCo powerhouse, College of the Sequoias (CA).
After his time in California, the Tigers almost lost him; Richardson briefly verbally committed to USC before reconsidering; he ultimately elected to stick with his original plan and return to his home state of Missouri. Back in Columbia, Richardson quickly became a force to be reckoned with. In 2011, playing through a shoulder injury that required offseason surgery (and limited him to two starts), he made enough plays as a reserve (37 tackles, eight for loss, two sacks) to garner honorable mention All-Big 12 honors. The following year, he had a standout season, notching 75 tackles (10.5 for loss) and four sacks, adding three forced fumbles, a blocked kick and a 60-yard fumble return (enough to be granted All-SEC honors by sportswriters).
The 6'2", 294 pound Richardson moves incredibly well for a big man. At Missouri's pro day, he ran a 4.71 second 40-yard dash and contributed 4.59 second short shuttle and 7.33 second three-cone drill times. His speed and quickness are evident on the field, where Richardson demonstrates light feet and an impressive first step that he uses to jump into the backfield in a hurry, easily beating reach-blocks and working his way through double-teams. But his game isn't solely comprised of speed; he also plays with leverage and power (albeit his game is pursuit moreso than holding the point).
Want to see Richardson's athleticism at work against top competition? Thanks to the awesome work of the people at Draft Breakdown, we have footage of him in SEC action against Kentucky and Tennessee and Florida. There's also some tape of him against RGIII from the Mizzou-Baylor game in 2011. Good stuff.
What do the top draftniks say about Richardson's game? Let's take a looksee:
ESPN/ Scouts, Inc. (Gary Horton): 3rd-rated DT; 14th overall
Versus the run: At his best working up the field or when slanting. Plays with good leverage. Can win with quick first step and by staying low initially. Pads do tend to rise after initial contact. He does flash ability to anchor but it's not his strength. He will get pushed around at times by double teams. Also allows OL to ride him wide too often. Needs to become more disciplined gap responsibility. Very good range for a DT. He has closing burst to the ball carrier and can be an explosive hitter. Jars ball carriers frequently and occasionally separates ball from body
Pass Rush Skills: Much more disruptive than production indicates and has some intriguing upside in this area. Shows ability to rush QB from DT and from 5-technique. Has a quick first step. Does a nice job using quickness to power, especially when working from DE. Gets good initial surge but does not have the finishing strength right now with power moves. Shows ability to locate ball quickly when he penetrates and has surprisingly good change-of-direction skills and body control for his size. Array of pass rush moves are a work in progress. Needs more discipline in terms of gap integrity and snap awareness.
Quickness (hands, feet): Quick first step and consistently wins the get-off battle. Can penetrate when working as a one-gap defender. Has very good range when slanting and twisting. Shows ability to change directions quickly. Still learning how to use hands but shows above average hand quickness.
Toughness/ Motor: Displayed a consistent motor in 2012. Gives great effort and can be seen chasing all over the field in pursuit. Appears more comfortable being on the move than doing the dirty work in the trenches. Inconsistent effort at times in terms of fight when locked up in a phone booth.
Intangibles: Juco transfer to Missouri December of 2010 but missed spring practice and part of summer camp in 2011 while dealing with the NCAA on some eligibility issues. Suspended for the Syracuse game this past fall for breaking team rules. Mental capacity and maturity level are being closely investigated by NFL scouts. Parents are Michael and Zelda Richardson.
CBSSports.com (Rob Rang): 3rd-rated DT; 17th overall
Strengths: Possesses a naturally large frame with proper weight distribution throughout his arms and legs. Has a thick trunk conducive to standing his ground in short-yardage situations. Is quick off the snap, demonstrating the burst to slip through gaps before trap blocks can be effective. Possesses a short area burst to close and surprising flexibility to adjust and make tackles in space. Shows good balance and recognition against cut blocks. Active hands to handcuff offensive linemen attempting to get into his pads and control, demonstrating a quick, fluid arm-over swim move and good strength to rip free from his opponent. Excellent vision and recognition to take advantage of his ability to disengage from blocks and put himself in position to make plays, showing the ability to sniff out screens, draws, etc. Athletic and instinctive enough that the Missouri defensive coaches would occasionally drop him back into coverage on zone blitzes... Showed a terrific motor throughout the 2012 season, often hustling down the line and yards downfield (at times 20 yards+) in pursuit of the ball. Closes quickly and with power, exploding into tackles and showing good hand-eye coordination to strip the ball away. Stepped up his level of play against top competition (Alabama, South Carolina, Florida, Arizona State). Has the size and athleticism of a future Pro Bowl defensive tackle.
Weaknesses: Has only had one dominant season at the FBS level (just 13 starts in 24 games) and there is some concern about how motivated he'll remain once he signs a big NFL contract. Has a tendency to stand up out of his stance and lose the leverage battle, occasionally struggling to break free until it's too late in short-yardage situations. More productive rushing the passer, recognizing the dump-off pass and pursuing from behind with passion than actually getting home for the QB sack (just three sacks in his "dominant" 2012 campaign)... Has struggled with academics in the past, resulting in his transferring to a junior college after signing with Missouri as a highly touted prep. Was also suspended for Missouri's final home game of the 2012 season (Syracuse) for violating team rules, reportedly for academics)... Teams will want to have their medical staffs check out Richardson at the Combine, as he underwent shoulder surgery following the 2011 season.
Compares To: Tyson Alualu, DT, Jacksonville Jaguars - If NFL scouts are convinced he'll maintain it once he cashes his first paycheck, the combination of size, athleticism and the high-revving motor Richardson demonstrated this season could lead to a shockingly high grade for Mizzou star, just as it did for Alualu, the surprise No. 10 overall pick of the 2010 draft.
Pro Football Weekly (Nolan Nawrocki): top-rated DT; 5th overall
Positives: Has long arms and big hands. Outstanding athleticism and foot speed. Impact playmaking ability. Makes plays very few big men are capable of (see 14:25 mark of 4th quarter vs. Arizona State). Active and disruptive. Unique ability to shoot gaps or stack and shed. Explosive get-off - bursts off the ball with leverage and can overwhelm blockers. Difficult to engage - quick, strong, active hands to tug and rip free. Fights double teams. Generally locates the football. Light on his feet. Exceptional bend, balance and body control. Excellent lateral agility. Can work an edge and zone drop. Impressive motor and range (reflected in tackle production) - redirects, accelerates and consistently chases plays away from him. Relentless, highly competitive trench warrior.
Negatives: Size is just OK - lacks ideal point-of-attack strength for two-gap responsibility. Can be moved when he gets fatigued and lets his pads rise. Could stand to refine and expand his arsenal of pass-rush moves. Still learning to consistently convert speed to power (average bull rush). Still developing recognition and feel for blocking pressure. Occasionally lets runners escape ankle tackles. Minimal passing-lane disruption. Could stand to improve his conditioning. Only a one-year impact player. Has a big mouth and coachability and maturity have been issues.
Summary: One of the most physically gifted prospects in the draft. Quick-twitch, highly athletic, competitive, instinctive, disruptive three-technique with dominant potential. Bona fide war daddy boasting an elite combination of athleticism and passion for the game to make a Warren Sapp-like impact as a devastating penetrator and double-digit sack artist. Could even warrant consideration as a one-gapping five technique.
National Football Post (Russ Lande): 3rd-rated DT; 15th overall
Strengths: Richardson has an excellent combination of quickness, agility and balance, which he combines with outstanding instincts off the ball to consistently win gaps. When he stays low off the snap and gets his hands out quickly, he displays the violent hands needed to set up a variety of moves to defeat blockers. He plays aggressively from snap to whistle, and does an outstanding job of reading and reacting to the ball behind the LOS.
Weaknesses: Richardson lacks top end speed and is not able to consistently finish plays in pursuit. He also lacks natural explosiveness out of his stance, and must rely on quickness, instincts and hand usage to defeat blockers and penetrate the backfield. When rushing the passer he relies too heavily on his swim, despite possessing a full arsenal of moves. At times he gets too high at the snap and can be driven off the ball or neutralized at the LOS by aggressive drive blockers.
Summary: Sheldon Richardson was an exciting player to evaluate because he plays at such a consistently high level. He displays the athleticism and timing off the snap to win gaps, as well as the anchor and heavy hands needed to occupy and work off blockers at the LOS. While he lacks natural explosion and long speed he is effective in space because of his read and react skills, as well as his ability to break down and change directions efficiently. Richardson's intensity and passion for football not only show up in his play on the field but also during interviews, and teams are sure to fall in love with his intangibles as well. He is likely to be a top 20 pick and should develop into a highly productive NFL player as either a 43 DT or 34 DE.
Want more? Here's our own Archie's scouting report on Richardson from back in late January.
As these reports suggest, Richardson has an impressive blend of speed, strength and quickness. Given the Cowboys move to a 4-3 defense predicated on these traits, and given that Monte Kiffin's beloved "under" front (and, by extension, the entire scheme) depends on a dominating 3-technique who possesses precisely Richardson's skill set, I think he'd have to be one of the team's foremost first-round targets. Not only is he a terrific fit, but Richardson represents great value; there's no question in my mind that he's worth the 18th pick, and he'll sit proudly inthe first round on my "little board."
The question is whether or not he'll still be on the board; 22 different teams interviewed him at the Combine, he's consistently been mocked between picks 7-14, and at least one top-ten team (Cleveland at number six) has invited him in for a pre-draft visit. Obtaining him will therefore require either a Christmas miracle (hey, we all know draft day is the real Christmas) along the lines of three quarterbacks going in the top fifteen picks, or a trade up to the early- to mid-teens, which would require at least a third rounder. That's too rich for the Cowboys' blood, I think, so they'll have to rely on the former.
Still, the Cowboys must think there's a reasonable chance Richardson could be there in the late teens, or they probably wouldn't have wasted a visit on him. Hey, miracles do happen...
Next up: Purdue defensive tackle (and O.C.C. favorite) Kawann Short