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Seahawks-Falcons matchups: 2 years removed from injury, Paul Richardson is back

NFL: NFC Wild Card-Detroit Lions at Seattle Seahawks Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Around Week 16 of his rookie season in 2014, Paul Richardson began to live up to his second-round pick status, and looked like the Seattle Seahawks most talented receiver in the process. Yes, really.

Doug Baldwin was a great slot receiver in a run-heavy offense but had yet to breakout as the Top-10 NFL receiver many believe he is today. Jermaine Kearse was a slightly better version of his 2016 self. Ricardo Lockette was contributing more than ever, but the passing game was missing the guy. They had great complimentary pieces, but nothing for them to complement. That is, until Richardson forced his way into the lineup.

After posting just 14 catches for 102 yards in his first 11 games, Richardson started getting involved and ended his first regular season with a four game stretch that saw him post 15 catches for 169 yards - good for 11.3 yards per reception - as well as his first career touchdown. It felt like the Seahawks offense finally had a replacement for Sidney Rice. There was a receiver for defenses to pay attention to over the top, the home run threat for the offense to distract from all the singles, doubles, and triples via Baldwin and Kearse on intermediate routes.

The run game was in place, the passing game was getting rolling, and the defense was still dominant as Seattle headed into the NFC playoffs once again as the top seed in 2014. Then, on a now-familiar deep pass to Richardson, it changed for both player and team. Richardson hauled in a 21-yard pass, but tore his ACL in the process. His rookie campaign that was building momentum ended in heartbreaking fashion.

An impressive recovery would see him return by the 2015’s ninth game, only for his season to end in nearly the exact same circumstance. Richardson’s one and only catch was a 41-yard go-route, but it ended with him pulling up and his season was again over, this time with a hamstring injury.

Heading into 2016, it was fair to question whether Richardson would ever be a contributor again. At 6’0” and 175-pounds, he’s built more like a track star than a football player, and once injuries start to hit a track star’s lower body, they’re tough to shake. Beginning the season fifth or even sixth in the pecking order, Richardson’s contributions were actually relatively impressive for someone playing as little as he was.

Prior to Tyler Lockett’s injury in Week 16, Richardson had 13 catches for 206 yards. Just like in his rookie season however, Week 16 saw a new Richardson become a key piece of the passing game, grabbing eight balls for 82 yards and a touchdown over the final two games of the regular season. His final stat line in the playoff win over the Detroit Lions wasn’t eye-popping: three catches, 48 yards and a touchdown. But each of the three catches were huge plays, and his touchdown was one of the finest you will ever see.

There isn’t a player on the Seahawks roster that combines crazy length and speed the way Richardson does. He no longer needs to be the best receiver on the roster, but if he can continue to pitch in with splash plays and timely catches, while staying healthy, he’ll continue to be a key contributor. Impressively, his contributions haven’t been limited to just downfield passes. More than ever this season he’s chipped in with 10-12 yard catches that have helped move the chains. It’s now his turn to complement Doug Baldwin and Jimmy Graham in the passing game, while once again seeming to help jump-start the Seattle’s passing game.

If the Seahawks are going to upset the Atlanta Falcons and advance to the NFC Championship game, Richardson could be as key as he was to getting his team past the Lions in the first round. The Falcons were 27th on defense per DVOA, 19th against the pass, but 30th against “Other WRs” besides a one or a two. Look for Atlanta to key in on Baldwin and Graham, making it necessary for players like Richardson, Kearse, and Luke Willson to make the most of their targets. Richardson made those most of his targets in a way rarely seen, turning what should have been three incompletions (or one incompletions and two DPIs) into a wild card win for Seattle.

That’s the Richardson we started to see in 2014, and definitely the one the team needs right now.