BBD Editor: Dan Hope
Though Kiko Alonso was likely the choice of any voters who based their Defensive Rookie of the Year decisions off of statistics, New York Jets defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson’s statistics were arguably just as impressive.
Richardson’s 77 total tackles were the second-most of any interior defensive lineman/3-4 defensive end, only behind J.J. Watt of the Houston Texans, the 2012 NFL Defensive Player of the Year. 16 of those total tackles were for loss (3.5 sacks). He also had one pass knockdown and one forced fumble, and was credited with 33 total quarterback pressures by Pro Football Focus.
The box-score statistics, however, aren’t why Richardson should win the award. It’s the hidden stats, the plays he made that only showed up on the box score for his teammates, that made him the most productive rookie in the NFL this season.
While Alonso’s total tackles are more impressive than Richardson’s on the surface, many of those tackles came away from the line of scrimmage downfield, or as a result of clean lanes to the ballcarriers thanks to the defensive linemen in front of him occupying blockers. As the season progressed and opposing offenses took more attention to put bodies on Alonso in run-blocking situations, his tackle production decreased.
Richardson, on the other hand, was one of the key guys using his explosiveness up front to draw double-team blocks. That opened up the players around him, including three Jets who each recorded 100-plus tackles this season, to make plays. Against single-team blocks, he was able to work through his opponent more often than not, allowing him to record a high number of tackles for a defensive lineman even while making so many hidden plays on the line of scrimmage.
Richardson actually had a better run stop percentage, a PFF metric that measures the frequency of run stops made at or behind the line of scrimmage within the number of snaps played against the run, than Alonso (Richardson: 9.8, Alonso: 8.5).
Overall, Pro Football Focus’ grading system gave Richardson a cumulative score of 30.4 for the year, the best score achieved by any NFL rookie this season (and 24.2 points better than Alonso, though no inside linebacker in the NFL achieved a higher score than 20). He was graded as the NFL’s fifth-best 3-4 defensive end, and specifically second-best in run defense.
Much will be made, and rightfully so, of Alonso playing every defensive snap this season, a very impressive feat while he was also the on-field play caller for the Bills defense. Still, Richardson’s snap totals were also impressive at a more taxing snap-to-snap position. He played 80.2 percent of the Jets’ defensive snap this season according to PFF; his 906 total defensive snaps ranked as the seventh-most among 3-4 defensive ends.
When he was on the field, Richardson’s per-snap production was the most impressive of any NFL rookie. He was a consistent difference-maker all season long who played a big part in the Jets ranking third in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game (88.3), a massive improvement from the 2012 season, in which they were ranked 26th in the NFL with 133.6 rushing yards allowed per game.
To put a cherry on top, Richardson even scored two offensive touchdowns in the final three weeks of the season.