It was a recruiting pitch unlike anything Sheldon Richardson had seen or heard before.
When free agents visit a prospective team, the organization usually rolls out the red carpet while wining, dining and hyping the player up.
That wasn’t the case when the defensive tackle arrived in Minnesota in mid-March and met with Vikings defensive line coach Andre Patterson and assistant defensive line coach Rob Rodriguez. The two sat down with Richardson, flipped on the film and got to the point.
So, what was conveyed in that initial film session before Richardson signed a 1-year deal with the Vikings?
“When you’re a professional, you feel like you can learn a little bit more here and there,” Richardson said. “But me having early success, winning the [Associated Press] Rookie of the Year [in 2013] and [making it to the] Pro Bowl [in 2014] and stuff like that, you think there isn’t too much more you can learn.
“Coming in and meeting with Coach Dre, it was a complete 180,” Richardson added. “He broke me down to the point where, even with my first initial step off the line, it was, ‘Why is it this way and what am I doing and what’s my thought process?’ It was like he wanted to be in the helmet with me. It’s really special what Coach Dre does.”
Richardson was drafted 13th overall by the New York Jets in the 2013 NFL Draft and made an immediate impact, racking up 17 sacks in five seasons and some individual accolades along the way.
But he has just 2.5 sacks in 30 games over the past two seasons in New York and Seattle, where Richardson was traded to a little over a week before the 2017 season.
Richardson saw an opportunity to work with Patterson, who has coached star linemen such as John Randle and Everson Griffen, and jumped at it.
Now, as the 2018 NFL season draws near, the former first-round pick feels refreshed and revitalized.
“It’s been a whirlwind, but the knowledge I’ve gained of myself is amazing,” Richardson said.
More than five months after signing with the Vikings, things are starting to come together for the 27-year-old.
“He’s done a great job. He’s fit into the room very well, he does everything I ask him to do, he’s eager to learn,” Patterson said. “It’s funny, sometimes I can see the little kid come out in him when I give him some pointers on pass rush. You can see the light come on in his head, and he’s excited about it.
“I know he’s had questions to some things over his career, why certain things didn’t work, and I’ve been able to give him the answer,” Patterson added. “He can speak more to it than I can, but I can see that kind of excitement in his face, that he’s learning some things that are helping him understand the game better.”
Added Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer said Richardson has been hard at work to implement changes in practices.
“It’s flashes right now, so to be consistent with it all the time will be the telltale sign,” Zimmer said.
Richardson’s new focal points involve his hands and his hips; Patterson said Richardson is now focused on simply positioning himself at the quarterback and getting there quicker.
“He’s getting better at [hand placement], but I think the biggest thing for him as a pass rusher is what he does with his hips, his shoulders,” Patterson said. “He’s quick, and he’s explosive. But he has to keep his hips in a position to always be in an attack mode on the offensive lineman to the quarterback.
“So one of the things that he’s done before in his career, is that he’s got his hips out of whack,” Patterson added.
Put another way, Patterson said Richardson had “no avenue to get to the quarterback,” even if he had beaten the lineman across from him.
“[My hips] weren’t planted toward the quarterback in most of my rush moves,” Richardson said. “That’s where my biggest problem came from.
“Just making sure they stay downhill and pointed at the quarterback at all times,” Richardson added. “Every step is at the quarterback and not just straight up the field like I had been taught.”
Richardson has started 70 of 73 career games played in five seasons, including 15 with Seattle in 2017 when he had 44 tackles (27 solo), a sack, one pass defensed, two fumble recoveries and his first career interception.
As he chatted and refueled after a steamy August practice, Richardson perked up when talking about how much he has enjoyed the process of redefining his game alongside Griffen, Linval Joseph, Danielle Hunter and Brian Robison.
“I’ve got great guys next to me, so I’ve come in and joined their mode,” Richardson said. “I have my days of struggling with it, and some days I’m flourishing at it. I just have to make it more consistent.”
Richardson admitted that the technique he’s learned in recent months is different than anything he’s ever tried before.
“It definitely is. How can I put it? Some guys will teach you little tricks of the trade, but then the game will catch up with you,” Richardson said. “This type of technique they’re teaching me, no matter what the offensive linemen do to me, it’s going to be real hard to stop me.”
Joseph, a mammoth defensive tackle who has made back-to-back Pro Bowls, said his new teammate’s hard work is starting to pay off.
“He’s starting to tune in, and he’s starting to understand that this is a scheme defense,” Joseph said. “It’s not, ‘You go out there and make plays.’ Once he understood that, he’s starting to see how everything develops and let plays come to him.”
Richardson said he fits seamlessly within the Vikings locker room, a hard-working, relentless group of first-round selections, late-round picks and undrafted free agents.
“It’s a brotherhood,” Richardson said before recalling a story about how the team recently bonded during training camp. “Coach [Zimmer] kind of got mad at us because we left [inflatable] mattresses in [the locker room] for nap time, which is basically what we call it after walk-through.
“He ended up realizing it was team building, guys wanted to do that, and he looked at it in a different way,” Richardson added. “It’s little things that this team does that you don’t see too often in the league.”
The Vikings defense was the league’s best in 2017, and the defensive line had a sizable hand in that success.
Griffen set a career high with 13 sacks and ranks in the top 10 all-time in franchise history. Joseph helped stuff opponents in the run game to a tune of just 83.6 yards per game, which ranked second in the league.
Hunter’s 25.5 career sacks are the most by any player from the 2015 draft class, and Robison provides a veteran presence and versatility to play at defensive end or inside in special packages.
How will one of the league’s best defensive lines fare now that Richardson is added into the mix?
“Pick your poison on that one,” Richardson said. “The other guys can hold the basket while the one guy picks the fruit. We have no problem with it.”
Richardson even went as far to say that he’s fine with not recording a single sack in 2018 if it means the Vikings make a deep postseason run.
“I need to win. Sacks are just a bonus,” Richardson said. “If my team wins, I don’t care if I have zero sacks. Just as long as we’re winning as I do my job.”
Richardson’s hope is that individual success and team success go hand-in-hand and make all of the work and effort he’s put in over the past five months well worth it.
Richardson acknowledged he could have signed elsewhere in free agency, probably for more money. But after five years in the NFL, he wasn’t afraid to take on a new challenge under Patterson’s guidance.
“It was a lot of small things, but you’ll be surprised how big they will be in a game,” Richardson said, reflecting on his change in approach.
“It was just a good opportunity. I had a few other offers that were more lucrative,” Richardson added. “This was the best fit for me.”