Patriots Safety Roster Reset: Jordan Richards Has Underrated Athleticism

Remember when the New England Patriots added a bunch of young, exciting, new players two weeks ago? Probably not, since deflated footballs are all anyone seems to want to talk about lately.

In an attempt to return to talking about football and not footballs — if only briefly — let’s take a look at how the Patriots stack up at safety after the 2015 NFL Draft.

The Patriots shocked the world by selecting Stanford safety Jordan Richards in the second round. Of course, this shouldn’t have been surprising at all, because drafting a defensive back four rounds earlier than projected has become a semi-annual tradition for head coach Bill Belichick.

The Patriots selected Tavon Wilson in the second round of the 2012 NFL Draft and Duron Harmon in the third round of the 2013 NFL Draft. Neither player was invited to the NFL Scouting Combine.

Richards did receive a combine invite, and at first glance, his testing times aren’t overly impressive. He ran a 4.65 40-yard dash with a 32-inch vertical leap and 9-foot, 3-inch broad jump.

In the spider graph below, however, we see his 60-yard shuttle is elite, and his 3-cone time is in the 88th percentile.

The 3-cone and 60-yard shuttle measures agility and change of direction. The 60-yard shuttle also measures cardiovascular training and acceleration. Change of direction, sudden burst and agility are key for a strong safety, while pure speed, which would be measured in the 40-yard dash, is more valuable for cornerbacks and free safeties.

Devin McCourty is locked in as the Patriots’ starting free safety for the 2015 season, and Patrick Chung is penciled in at strong safety for the second consecutive season. Some fans have raised the possibility McCourty could move back to cornerback because of the Patriots’ lack of top-end talent at that position, but that doesn’t seem very wise.

McCourty’s strengths at cornerback were in zone defense, which puts added pressure on two deep safeties. McCourty and Harmon are the Patriots’ only reliable deep safeties, and it seems removing McCourty from the equation to play shallow at cornerback is severely weakening one position to only slightly upgrade another.

The Patriots’ smartest move is to keep McCourty where he thrives at free safety, and start some combination of Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan, Bradley Fletcher and Robert McClain at cornerback in a combination of man and zone coverages.

Chung started at strong safety last season, but Harmon and Wilson also were used in specific roles. Harmon played when the Patriots required two deep safeties or when McCourty moved into the box for man coverage. Wilson was used in the Patriots’ dime defense, when they had six defensive backs on the field, in a hybrid linebacker/safety role.

Richards’ initial role with the Patriots likely will be on special teams, but it also seems he could slot into Wilson’s dime role. Richards is a strong run defender, and he was at his best against the pass when playing near the line of scrimmage.

The Patriots went five deep at safety last season, with McCourty, Chung, Harmon, Wilson and Nate Ebner. The addition of Richards could force either Wilson or Ebner, who’s primarily a special-teamer, off the roster.

Thumbnail photo via Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY Sports Images

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