A series looking at the players on the Seattle Seahawks who are set to become free agents in March, as well as potential trade and cap casualty candidates.
Player: Sheldon Richardson
Position: Defensive tackle
2017 Cap Hit: ~$8 million (OverTheCap.com)
2017 Stats: 15 games/starts, 44 tackles, 1 sack, 3 tackles for loss, 1 interception, 1 forced fumble
Sheldon Richardson’s impending free agency is one of the most fascinating subplots of the Seattle Seahawks’ offseason. He’s a former Defensive Rookie of the Year and Pro-Bowler, a player Seattle dealt a second-round selection for less than a year ago. He’s also the most talented defensive lineman the Seahawks have had during Pete Carroll’s time in Seattle. However, he has yet to return to the form that had him heading towards a large contract extension before a tumultuous offseason in 2016 ended the New York Jets’ plans to give him one.
In the season following a trying 2016 offseason, Richardson was unable to re-capture his sparkling form for New York, as they moved the nearly 300-pound defender off the line of scrimmage and to an outside linebacker position in their 3-4 defense. What followed was a then-career low in sacks and the least impactful season of his young career, before a trade to the Seahawks prior to the 2017 season.
Richardson’s first season in Seattle garnered mixed reviews. He arrived as Malik McDowell’s future looked murky, and the team was suddenly in need of a three-technique defensive tackle capable of playing the run and pass. Richardson’s finest season with the Jets came in a similar role in New York’s 3-4 defense, and so in a stacked defense and back where he’s comfortable, expectations were rightfully set high. But with just one sack and three tackles for loss, Richardson’s impact rarely showed up in the box score.
Beyond the box score
There’s an old trope about nose tackles and interior defenders, and how their contributions rarely show up in the box score. The same could be said for a good portion of the Seahawks’ defensive line throughout the Pete Carroll era, where pressure and moving a quarterback off their spot is valued higher than traditional statistics like sacks and tackles for loss. Consider this: In the past five seasons, Seattle’s defenders have reached double digit sacks just three times (Michael Bennett’s 10 in 2015, Cliff Avril’s 11.5 in 2016 and Frank Clark’s 10 in ‘16). Bennett’s 2017 season - largely viewed as a down year for one of the team’s best players - produced just 14 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks, however his 39.5 pressures (per Football Outsiders/Sports Info Solutions) ranked 16th in the league. So despite posting his third lowest sack total and second lowest TFL total during his time as a Seahawk, Bennett was still an effective rusher, while playing on a nagging foot injury. The same could be applied to Richardson and his debut season in Seattle.
The Seahawks’ run defense was unquestionably worse in 2017 than it had been in previous seasons under Carroll. The team’s 13th place finish in run defense per DVOA was their worst since finishing 17th in 2010, Carroll’s first year at the helm. Their league-worst form to begin this past season was attributed to chunk runs by opposing ‘backs, several of which came with Richardson on the sideline, as the team made a concerted effort to rest starters on early downs and keep them fresh. So while the team’s run defense suffered as a whole, Richardson was as consistent as Seattle’s run defense had come to be under Carroll.
Brandon Thorn, who scouts defensive tackles for Bleacher Report’s NFL 1000, graded a perceived down season by Richardson quite well (finishing seventh among defensive tackles in the B/R 1000). Playing in a four-man front for the first time in his career allowed Richardson’s football IQ and athleticism to shine, Thorn told me: “One of the most impressive parts of his game is his ability to key and diagnose the ball, then track down and pursue the ball from the backside. Defending outside zone runs from the 3T spot really allowed this to shine.”
Jarran Reed’s step up in play in 2017 received most of the attention, but it was Richardson’s ability to defend the run on both the playside and backside that was the biggest boon to the Seahawks’ run defense. His 44 total tackles (in 15 games) was 21st among interior defensive linemen this season, all while playing in front of the NFL’s perpetual tackle king in Bobby Wagner. Tackles are an arbitrary stat, but his raw numbers do reflect his ability to find and arrive at the ball in time to effect a play.
Rushing the passer from the 3-tech spot in a four-man front represented an adjustment for Richardson, too. The responsibilities, and positioning, was different then what he had become accustomed to with the Jets. We’ve seen players in recent seasons switch schemes and have tremendous success immediately - Calais Campbell and Damon Harrison come to mind - but generally, it should take an adjustment period. So while his sack numbers hit a career low, from a long-term perspective, his comfort level and fit into a new system were hugely important if he is to return to Seattle for 2018 and beyond. Those boxes can be checked, too.
“I loved him as a 3T and do think the 4 man front suits his skill-set very well,” says Thorn. “His blend of length, mobility, and explosiveness allow him to play low on the interior to defend the run and hold ground when double teams and combos come, but also knife through the shoulder of guards for penetration.”
Traditional stats represent a player who underperformed in 2017, and with free agency looming, it’s fair to be skeptical of Richardson’s long-term value to a team in its first real transitional offseason during a run of success and dominance. But his play against both the run and the pass held up against every other player at his position over the course of the season. Playing in a new system, he was a consistent performer on a defense hit by injuries at every level. On the criticism that he ran cold at times, Thorn - who watched every snap of every defensive tackle in 2017 - dispelled that notion, saying “On a snap-by-snap, game-by-game basis I largely saw the same player. And (I) thought Richardson performed very well in games against top OL units (PHI, DAL).”
Dynamic, game-altering defensive tackles are taking over the league in recent seasons. Whether it’s Aaron Donald, Fletcher Cox, Grady Jarrett or any other of the host of fleet-footed interior players, offenses have shown an inability to stop or slow down these defenders without considerably altering their game plan. The ability to wreck an offense’s game simply by playing yours is truly rare. Richardson displayed from an early stage in his career he has that ceiling; 2017 saw a downturn in traditional stats, but a standard season for him in terms of effectiveness. These types of players are few and far between, and as hard as it is to acquire one, it should prove even harder to let them leave.
2018 Contract Outlook
Any potential deal between Richardson and the Seahawks would likely go one of two ways. The first would be a one-year, ‘prove it’ deal as an attempt to reset his market value closer to the massive deals handed out to defensive linemen recently. The most recent example of this would be Dontari Poe last offseason, who received a one-year, $8 million deal from the Atlanta Falcons. Richardson is a better player than Poe, and has consistently shown a better ability to rush the passer — the number-one trait that generally leads to large contracts. Poe and Star Lotulelei are Richardson’s two main competitors for a long-term deal in free agency this March, and a shallower free agent pool could lead to a larger figure attached to a one-year deal.
From Seattle’s perspective, a higher one-year figure could mean the franchise tag comes into play. With McDowell’s future still utterly hazy, the tag could make sense. It would give the Seahawks another year of having Richardson in-house to evaluate the value of a longer deal, and it would (likely) provide both McDowell and Seattle enough time to reach a conclusion to his health saga, whether it be hitting the field in 2018 or ‘19, or a sad end to a career that never got started. Last season’s franchise tag for a defensive tackle was $13.4 million. Whether the Seahawks would want to pay Richardson a number in that area for one season would depend on what they feel the open market will dictate. In his time in Seattle, John Schneider has used the tag just once, on kicker Olindo Mare in 2010.
The other potential direction for Richardson and the Seahawks would be coming to an agreement on a long-term deal. In recent years, we’ve seen massive deals be handed out to Cox (6/$102.6m), Malik Jackson (6/$85.5m), Ndamukong Suh (6/$114m) and Richardson’s former teammate, Muhammad Wilkerson (5/$86m). Last offseason saw Brandon Williams - a terrific player, but more limited than Richardson - retained by the Baltimore Ravens with a five-year, $52.25 million deal. Williams’ $10.4 million APY is lower than what Richardson would get on the open market, even coming off of two statistically poor seasons. An APY between $12-16 million is likely what he would garner on the open market, and one would have to think Richardson wouldn’t re-sign long-term prior to free agency without seeing a contract on the higher side of that estimate. For that reason, a one-year deal almost certainly makes the most sense from Seattle’s perspective.
Likelihood to re-sign with the Seahawks: 25%
Barring a team friendly, or one-year deal, it seems likely that Seattle will be priced out of retaining Richardson. Too many teams have a more-than-healthy amount of cap space, and Richardson is one of the most talented players hitting the open market. With (what is essentially) dead money already invested in Kam Chancellor, and big decisions looming for both Bennett and Richard Sherman, the Seahawks can’t allocate money for a long-term deal for Richardson, and they certainly can’t outbid teams in free agency.
Acquiring Richardson when they did made all the sense in the world. Whether the gamble paid off or not can be argued in both directions — without a championship or long-term deal to show for it, it’s fair to say that it didn’t pay off much at all. But as long as Schneider is overseeing personnel moves, expect more chances like the acquisition of Richardson to be taken.