No matter how well he played, Sheldon Richardson always seemed like a misfit with the New York Jets. Even on draft day, Richardson, the 13th-overall selection billed as an exciting, high-upside prospect with an ability to play anywhere on the defensive line, received a lukewarm welcome from the New York faithful. Although the reaction was likely just the culmination of half a decade of subpar drafting, during which the only offensive player picked by the Jets in the first round was notable quarterback bust Mark Sanchez, this reaction still set the tone for what became a four-year-long roller coaster ride.
Despite the cold welcome, Richardson’s career began positively. Albeit in a weak draft class, Richardson took home the 2013 Defensive Rookie of the Year award over future All-Pros like DE Ezekiel Ansah, LB Jamie Collins, and DB Tyrann Mathieu–and deservedly so. Playing mainly at the three- and five-techniques, Richardson’s natural positions, he recorded 3.5 sacks, 12 tackles for a loss, and demonstrated his disruptive presence time after time. The following year, Richardson truly broke out. With 8 sacks (more than double his rookie total), Richardson established himself as one of the premier young defensive line talents in the NFL and was rightfully named to his first Pro Bowl.
After that season, however, things began to unravel between Richardson and the Jets. In early July, Richardson received a four-game suspension for marijuana. For a young, developing player, this was devastating, and the damage was only compounded by an ugly arrest following a high-speed car chase not two weeks later. This tumultuous offseason was only exacerbated by the Jets’ selection of Leonard Williams in the 2015 NFL Draft. While Williams was widely considered the best player in that draft class, and a steal at No. 6 overall, that pick only packed more sardines into a Jets defensive line can that was already filled to capacity by Richardson and fellow studs Damon Harrison and Muhammad Wilkerson. Seeing that Williams fit the same role as both Richardson and Wilkerson, Richardson, the most versatile of the bunch, saw significantly more time on the edge.
Luckily, despite the change of role, Richardson did not regress considerably in 2015. With improved cornerback play and an exotic zone blitzing scheme implemented by new head coach Todd Bowles, Richardson finished with five sacks and 15 quarterback hits, on track to match his 2014 totals of eight and 21, respectively. However, things only got worse for Richardson that offseason. After Wilkerson signed a long-term extension and Richardson was smacked with yet another suspension, Richardson truly became the odd man out. In an offense without a big-name player with edge rushing prowess, Richardson’s versatility was no longer maximized, but, rather, exploited. Now playing predominantly off the edge as an on-ball outside linebacker, and even occasionally taking snaps at inside linebacker, Richardson’s performance plummeted. Embroiled in an enigmatic feud with wide receiver Brandon Marshall, and with a depleted, regressed secondary behind him, Richardson mustered up just 1.5 sacks on the season. With a poor fit, underwhelming play, and obvious tensions gripping the Jets’ locker room, Richardson became the subject of trade talks as early as the November deadline.
With the way the Jets’ season was headed, a Richardson trade seemed not only necessary but downright unavoidable. The Jets’ secondary was giving Richardson little time to disrupt and penetrate on his own, and the drama with Marshall was affecting the performance of both players, and likely others around them, too. There was a need for a fresh start from all parties involved before the Jets could truly continue as a franchise. With that in mind, when trade deadline rumors about Richardson to the Dallas Cowboys and Denver Broncos failed to come to fruition, it was a major disappointment. Then, after the NFL offseason came and went, still without a trade, it felt as though Richardson truly would play out his fifth year option. This would have been problematic, as another losing season would have only led to more headaches and in-fighting, and the year would have inevitably culminated with Richardson leaving in free agency with little compensation for the Jets. However, things began to look up in the preseason. Richardson was employed more on the interior, and showed tremendous core strength and penetrating ability, making him arguably the Jets’ best preseason performer. When trade rumors were resurrected over the final week of preseason, the natural response was apprehension, since the previous rumblings had ultimately amounted to nothing. After the strong preseason, however, there was less cause for concern, even if Richardson were to stay. Albeit in a small sample size, he looked like his old, 2014 Pro Bowl self, and if he were to be shipped later in the season, the price would have likely been driven up.
Then, on September 1st, it finally happened. With the emergence of another Richardson–WR Paul Richardson–on the Seattle Seahawks, WR Jermaine Kearse suddenly became expendable, and the Seahawks began actively shopping Kearse at the end of the summer. After the Jets’ No. 1 receiving option, Quincy Enunwa, was lost for the season, New York became a perfect match. In a move that ultimately benefits everyone involved, the Jets received Kearse and a second round pick for Richardson and a swap of seventh round picks.
For the Jets, the move helps three-fold. Firstly, it brings in an eager player in Kearse with a longer contract who ultimately fills a position of greater need. Kearse can play inside or outside, and has a wide catch radius to complement an innate ability to get open, similar to the Green Bay Packers’ Geronimo Allison. With an opening in the starting lineup, Kearse should contribute Week 1 alongside Robby Anderson and ArDarius Stewart. Secondly, the compensation for Richardson is far more than initially expected. With Richardson on the final year of his contract and carrying a cap hit of over $8 million, the speculated price was generally a mid-round pick. So, for the Jets to get a second round pick along with a starting-caliber wide receiver amounts to a bona fide steal. As the Jets in the mode of rebuilding through the draft, that pick could be used in a variety of ways. With the Jets also likely to have another pick early in the second round, they could use the Seahawks pick to move back up into the first round for a foundational player like QB Lamar Jackson, OT Connor Williams, or TE Troy Fumagalli–or simply stay put and take an extra contributor. Finally, the trade allows the Jets to prioritize other offseason contract situations, including potential extensions for Quincy Enunwa and Leonard Williams, as opposed to trying to keep Richardson in New York long term. Both in terms of long-term and short-term help, the trade was a success for the Jets.
Seattle’s front 7 includes:
* Bobby Wagner
* Michael Bennett
* Cliff Avril
* Sheldon Richardson
* Frank Clark
* K.J. Wright
* Ahtyba Rubin
— Field Yates (@FieldYates) September 1, 2017
For Seattle, the trade adds more firepower to an already-stacked defense. With CB Richard Sherman and safeties Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas, the Seahawks’ secondary is still one of the league’s best. However, Thomas could still be hampered by the effects of last season’s injury, and Sherman is getting up there in age (29). Furthermore, the Seahawks have a serious dearth of depth at cornerback behind Sherman. With Richardson in the building, the Seahawks’ defensive line could mask any potential secondary deficiencies. DE Michael Bennett is a pressure machine with arguably the best first step in football, so pairing him with Richardson, DE Cliff Avril, DE Frank Clark, DT Jarran Reed, and potentially DT Malik McDowell later in the season would keep opposing quarterbacks under constant siege, turning the Seahawks’ defense into a turnover factory. With Bennett and Avril also both over thirty years old, Richardson, along with McDowell and Reed, gives the Seahawks a sound succession plan, almost ensuring that the Seahawks’ pass rush stays dominant for years to come. Furthermore, considering the Seahawks’ drafting dominance in the late rounds, the ability to move up in the seventh round could allow Seattle to find yet another contributor late.
However, the biggest winner of the deal may not even be either of the two teams. While the Seahawks and Jets both improved, the party to gain the most in the trade may have been Sheldon Richardson himself. As his post-game remarks and seemingly resigned and dismissive Snapchat stories indicated last year, Richardson was clearly disgruntled in New York. By trading for him, the Seahawks not only removed Richardson from a toxic situation with the Jets, but also moved him all the way across the country from Brandon Marshall, allowing Richardson to become more focused on his craft rather than last year’s bad blood. Furthermore, the 6’3, 295-pound Richardson can now revert back to his natural defensive tackle position. While he found some success of the edge in 2015, his best production has always come from the interior. Then, after the season, if Richardson resigns, which he likely will, he will be on a perennial contender, surrounded by phenomenal young talent, and far from the drama of years past. So, all in all, the trade improves both teams for the present and future, and affords Richardson the best chance to further his promising career.