The New England Patriots former second-round pick may be in jeopardy of losing his job after two quiet seasons.
Since joining the team, Richards has fallen short of his expectations. In two years, he’s had 23 tackles, two passes defended, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery. Richards finished 2016 with three total tackles and was inactive for all of New England’s playoff games. Despite his low production in the regular season, Richards exhibited good potential with a red zone interception against the Giants last summer.
Ahead of the 2015 draft, NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein (@LanceZierlein) projected Richards to be a sixth or seventh round pick. In his draft profile, he says Richard’s is a “Team captain and defensive leader” noting his “Good football and personal character” as strengths. The Patriots selected him in the second round.
The Patriots have taken multiple safeties with their Day 2 selections. In 2009, they drafted Patrick Chung with their second round pick, and in 2012, Tavon Wilson. In 2013, New England used their third-round pick on Duron Harmon.
This April, former Patriots executive Mike Lombardi said on The Ringer’s ‘GM Street’ podcast that New England wanted to take Missouri center Mitch Morse with their second round pick, but the Chiefs ended up taking Morse with the 49th overall pick.
"“Two years ago, Mitch Morse the offensive center for the Chiefs. His name was never mentioned in these mocks, okay? So, we were picking in the bottom of the second in New England. We felt really good that we would be able to get him. We felt really comfortable that we could get him because there was no indication on this survey here that he was involved with any of them. And yet the Chiefs picked in the middle of the second.” – Mike Lombardi (28:27)"
It didn’t take long for Richard’s to start earning praise in New England. During the summer of 2015, Doug Kyed of NESN quoted safety Devin McCourty saying:
"“I think he’s a guy that’s hungry. He came in Day 1 knowing as much as possible for a rookie. The thing is, we stay on him to keep playing through mistakes. He’s so smart and understands so much that he hasn’t made very many mistakes. But he’s still a rookie, and we just tell him to keep playing. He’s doing great so far.” – Devin McCourty (per @DougKyed)"
Richards was drafted into a crowded Patriots safety group featuring Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, and Duron Harmon. Following the 2015 season, safeties Tavon Wilson and Nate Ebner hit the free agent market.
In 2016, Richards sat behind Chung and Harmon as New England’s third-string strong safety. According to Football Outsiders, he finished the year with 18 defensive snaps (1.7% of the NE defensive snaps) and 151 special teams snaps (33.7% of NE special teams snap).
Based on his two seasons in the league so far, Richards has begun to resemble New England’s 2012 second round draft choice, safety Tavon Wilson. In 2013, Wilson’s second season, he had 17 defensive snaps (1.5%) and 253 special teams snaps (51.7%).
The Patriots signed a number of rookie defensive backs following the draft in April. David Jones, Jason Thompson, Damarius Travis, and D.J. Killings are among those who will challenge Richards for a spot on the roster. In addition, he’ll need to beat out cornerback Jonathan Jones or linebacker/safety Brandon King. Jones and King played double the special teams snaps than Richards in 2016 and would be cheaper options as special teams contributors.
New England could part ways with their two most recent second round picks this offseason. 2016 draft pick Cyrus Jones will face an uphill battle as he fights for redemption following a poor rookie season. The two defensive backs will have all summer to prove their value to the team, if not they’ll join Aaron Dobson, Tavon Wilson, and Ras-I Dowling, in New England’s long line of second round busts.