RENTON, Wash. — Sheldon Richardson popped over to the corner of the Seattle Seahawks locker room where the specialists reside. He had to ask punter Jon Ryan, kicker Blair Walsh and long-snapper Tyler Ott the burning hypothetical question that had been making the rounds Wednesday.
If you could only afford your electricity bill, your phone bill or your car payment, which one would you pay?
Electricity bill was an easy call for Richardson, who has a young daughter at home, but he was amused by receiver Doug Baldwin’s answer.
“He said, ‘I can Uber to work and I can stay at one of ya’ll cribs,’” Richardson said. “He’d pay his phone bill.”
Richardson, by all accounts, has had no trouble assimilating into the Seahawks locker room since he was acquired in a trade with the New York Jets at the end of the preseason. But as Richardson reflected on his first month and a half with his new team, he told ESPN.com that his adjustment to Seattle’s defense remains a work in progress.
“Still transitioning, actually,” Richardson said. “Different things every week. Just getting accustomed to playing with guys still in different situations and trying to find my groove where I can make plays. I’m just doing my job as of right now. I’m not really as productive as I’m used to being.”
That’s not to say he’s been unproductive. Richardson had a hand in two of the most impactful defensive plays of Seattle’s last game, a 16-10 victory over the Los Angeles Rams before the bye week. He intercepted a tipped pass after deftly sniffing out a screen, and he recovered a fumble to help the Seahawks (3-2) pitch a shutout in the second half.
But Richardson, who had 18 sacks in four seasons with the Jets, has yet to record one in five games with Seattle. Of his 12 tackles, none have been for a loss. He’s been credited with two quarterback hits while playing about 67 percent of Seattle’s defensive snaps, second to Michael Bennett among Seahawks defensive linemen, according to Pro Football Reference.
Those are underwhelming numbers relative to what Richardson produced in New York and to the expectations that accompanied his arrival in Seattle.
Part of the issue, it seems, is that it’s taking Richardson time to adjust to a Seattle defense that’s fundamentally different from the one in New York. Richardson played in a 3-4 front with the Jets, first under Rex Ryan and then Todd Bowles. He was often asked to do what’s called two-gap, a technique that calls for defensive linemen to control two gaps in the line, as opposed to one.
Sheldon Richardson played in a 3-4 with the Jets and is still adjusting to being a 4-3 defensive lineman in Seattle. Joe Robbins/Getty Images
Generally speaking, a two-gapping defensive lineman will line up directly across from an offensive lineman, not shaded to one side. While reading the play, he’ll stay square and hold his ground as to not lose leverage on one gap or the other.
It’s a different job for a defensive tackle in Seattle’s 4-3 front.
“With 4-3, we want penetration, single-gap dominance and things like that,” defensive coordinator Kris Richard said. “The more we penetrate, the more we knock people back and create a new line of scrimmage, the faster the guys behind them can play.”
Asked about the impact that Richardson has had so far, Richard called him “awesome” and reiterated a point he’s made several times, which is that Richardson is a different caliber of athlete from what Seattle has had at that position in the last few seasons. Then he volunteered that “we’ve got to get the two-gap ideology out of him” and said Richardson has been progressing in that regard.
Richardson said it’s “annoying” that he hasn’t produced as much as he’d like.
“But I mean, we’re winning,” he said, “so I don’t really care.”
When the Seahawks acquired Richardson for a package that included a second-round pick and receiver Jermaine Kearse, it followed a pattern of bold trades by general manager John Schneider. He had previously swung blockbuster deals for Percy Harvin and Jimmy Graham, both of which cost Seattle first-round picks and more.
The difference: The Seahawks gave Harvin a long-term deal upon trading for him, and when they acquired Graham, they inherited a contract that still had three seasons left. Those players were under club control for a while; Richardson is not. He’s playing out the fifth and final year of his rookie deal, which means he’ll be an unrestricted free agent after this season.
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“Let the Lord take the wheel on that one, man,” he said about his future beyond 2017. “That’s it. That’s how I am. That’s it. Keep working.”
Richardson, who’s making a little over $8 million this season, might price himself out of Seattle, given all the money the Seahawks are spending on defense. But it’s not impossible to envision a scenario in which he’s re-signed. Schneider wouldn’t have given up a second-round pick if he didn’t think there would at least be a chance to keep Richardson beyond 2017.
There will be a number of factors in play, as always. A big one will be the status of defensive lineman Malik McDowell, who was seriously injured in a summer ATV accident. The Seahawks traded for Richardson after learning that McDowell, their first draft pick in 2017, would be sidelined possibly for his entire rookie season, if not longer.
The Seahawks believed Richardson would have the impact they hoped McDowell would give them. Richardson’s transition to Seattle’s defense is taking time, but coach Pete Carroll sees progress.
“You can see he’s much freer, much more in control of what’s going on, and he understands the calls and what we’re trying to get out of him,” Carroll said. “He had a great game the last time out and hopefully we can just keep building on that.”