With the 2012 NFL season in the books, and the scouting combine in the rear-view, it's time to take a closer look at the 50 players we think will be the biggest difference-makers at the next level from this draft class. To that end, we're happy to continue this year's Shutdown 50 scouting reports (Hint: There may actually be more than 50). You can read last year's group here. The final 50 players were chosen and ranked based on game tape, combine and Pro Day results, overall positional value, and attributes and liabilities on and off the field.
#19: Sheldon Richardson, DT, Missouri
We continue this year's series with Missouri defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, who has made quite an impact as a draft prospect in a relatively short time. He originally planned to join the Missouri defense as the anchor of its 2009 recruiting class, but academic issues delayed that plan until the 2011 season. In the meantime, Richardson played at the College of the Sequoias in California. When he did find his place at Missouri, Richardson proved his worth quickly, racking up tackles for loss and getting a sack against Baylor, and quarterback Robert Griffin III. His 2012 campaign was even better -- Richardson clearly established himself as one of the NCAA's best defensive tackles with game tape that popped off the screen just about every week.
In two FBS seasons and one SEC campaign, Richardson totaled 54 solo tackles, 112 total tackles, 18.5 tackles for loss, 6.0 sacks, four passes defenses, and four forced fumbles. However, Richardson's game is about more than stats -- you have to watch him play after play to see how disruptive he can be, and against some of the most practiced and powerful offensive lines in the nation. His game against Alabama (nine solo tackles and a sack) was particularly impressive, and his performance against Arizona State was a virtual non-stop highlight reel. If you stock up on his attributes, it's relatively easy to rate him right up there with Utah's Star Lotulelei and Florida's Sharrif Floyd, the two best tackles in this draft class.
"Sharrif and Star are real good D-tackles," Richardson said at the scouting combine. "I like the way I stand up to them and I stock up to them. I like my draft stock as much as their draft stock. I think it's all an even playing field thinking about it. You're splitting hairs really. It's all what you're looking for and what you want as far as who you want on your team basically, and if you like them in your private interviews."
Based on the tape, it's tough to argue. And as a pure gap disruptor, Richardson may have no equal in this class.
Pros: Absolutely marvelous gap penetrator with the quick-twitch speed and hand movement to upset any blocker. Has a very quick first step off the snap and propels himself through the action. Sifts through blockers well (including double-teams) when angling and trying to beat slide protection. Keeps his head up and his body balanced after initial blocking contact, allowing him to make plays after fist impact. Gets skinny off the snap when facing a single blocker -- will turn his body to get through and has an impressive rip move to reinforce it. Can maul if he gets his hands up before the blocker, though this isn't his predominant attribute. Keeps his feet moving and will wear double teams down. Keeps his eye on the play and will disengage from blockers quickly to make plays downfield. Terrific space defender for his size -- will careen from sideline to sideline more quickly than a big man should. Has the pure agility to back into defense on screen passes, and the ability to drop in zone blitzes.
Excels at multiple positions -- could be an impact player at one-tech, three-tech, and possible a five-tech role in a 3-4 defense. There isn't an NFL team that wouldn't benefit from his skill set. Redistributes to open gaps and spaces almost as a running back would -- has a tremendous sense of how to get free to disrupt. Laterally agile enough to excel in stunts and loops.
Cons: Richardson is not a consistent physical "winner" in that he will get stoned by more powerful blockers, especially in the run game. Will also tend to get boxed out if he's moving to the side and into the pocket. Comes off the snap too high at times, leading him to lose leverage and angle battles he should win. Limited experience at the FBS level could hurt him on some draft boards, but his play against better teams will more than make up for it on others.
Conclusion: Richardson's first step is what makes him truly special, but make no mistake -- this is a player with a fantastic overall skill set with the ability to be an impact player from the start in the NFL. In addition, his positional versatility will make him attractive to just about any team, and defensive coordinators should see a lot to like in this "moveable chess piece." His best position might be as a three-tech tackle with his upper-body strength and agility, but he'll also be able to move with the NFL trend of linemen becoming more position-versatile.