Last year Sheldon Richardson dominated the headlines in rookie camp, instantly earned the affection of the coaching staff and teammates and also became both a fan and media favorite. He continued that dominance throughout training camp and the regular season culminating with him winning the Defensive Rookie of the Year award.
Let’s travel back in time to just over a year ago.
The Jets had just drafted Dee Milliner and Richardson in the first round while also snagging Geno Smith with their second round pick. It was the first day of rookie camp and as soon as media observers glanced at the field their eyes lit up as if to say, ‘Damn, that dude is quick.’ Instantly onlookers were transfixed by his electric speed and quickness, an effortless burst and an overall giant ball of energy. It was just rookie camp though, so as impressive as his first impression was it was hard to put any stock into it, that is, until the locker room opened up.
NFL locker rooms are sort of like little pockets of an alternate universe. The reality inside those walls is much different from reality outside those walls. The melting pot of different personalities and backgrounds ingrained in the culture of football mixed with the presence of the media creates a very interesting dynamic and it usually takes rookies a year or two to fully feel comfortable and emerge from their shells. Not Richardson though, oh no. Richardson commanded the attention of everyone in the locker room just as he did on the field, even more so in fact.
It was one thing to watch this big man fly around the practice field much faster/quicker than physics tell us should be possible, but the way he handled himself on that first day in the locker room told us all we needed to know about him, even if we weren’t fully aware of it at the time.
The energy, the enthusiasm, the humor, the willingness to talk and talk and talk some more and, of course, the cockiness. Normally in situations like this the writer will say the player is ‘confident bordering on cocky,’ but Richardson crossed the border into cockiness well before he was drafted by the Jets. The reason writers usually couch the cockiness part is because, obviously, most of the time cockiness is downright annoying. But with Richardson it doesn’t feel that way.
Yeah he’s cocky, cocky as hell, but he has a certain grace about it that makes it easy to love and almost impossible not to. He does it with a smile, with jokes and can take a joke as well as he can dish them out. He doesn’t come off like he’s insulting other players or he’s above interacting with the media or anyone else, he actually enjoys every bit of it and while he takes his craft and reputation very seriously he doesn’t take himself or life too seriously.
As the season progressed the media saw more and more of his maturity, a certain wise beyond his year’s/old soul type quality. He talked about how easy it was to ignore the noise and concentrate on football, “Don’t put too much pressure on yourself, simple as that.” Richardson said after playing his first regular season game, “There’s no need to put too much pressure on yourself when you’ve been playing football since you were five-years-old. It’s just that simple.”
He followed those wise words with his trademark sense of humor blended with his hunger to compete and improve when he was asked about getting his name in the sack column for the first time, “I mean, Cal (Clavin Pace) got there first, you know, he got there first, but I also got there too and I’m trying to give him the benefit of the doubt. You know, we got there together, but he just, for some reason, he wants to take it all. I mean he wants the whole sack, I mean he got half a sack, so it is what it is, competitive fun. Just glad that we pulled it (the win) out.”
Those quotes tell you all you need to know about Richardson the person, he has great perspective, nothing is or will be too big for him and while he loves, emphasis on loves, to have fun and crack jokes he always finds a way to bring it back around to what really matters, his teammates, competition, improving and trying to get the W.
When the Jets drafted Richardson the move was met with skepticism, ‘really, another defensive lineman in the first?’ ‘Richardson the first defensive tackle taken? Star Lotulelei is better, so is Sharrif Floyd. Richardson doesn’t even fit their scheme,’ others insisted, plus ‘don’t the Jets need offensive weapons?’
But Rex Ryan told us there was something special about this kid and he knew it right from the start.
Ryan wasn’t alone in declaring Richardson special so early in the process, after the 2013 draft the Jets director of college scouting, Jeff Bauer, said, “As a player, this guy is special. We had a lot of scouts that looked at him and he jumps off the tape. This is a defensive tackle who made plays 20 yards down the field, sideline-to-sideline, and his motor is non-stop. He’s going to make an impact here quickly.”
Ryan told us Richardson absolutely fit their defense, it was his athleticism and versatility that made him such a unique player and a perfect fit. Ryan said, “The reason why we took Sheldon, it was different than what we had, but he would provide us with that real athletic guy you can play in a 3-4, and fit 4-3 penetrating-type guy.”
And as fans quickly found out his fun-loving, gregarious personality was infectious and so damn entertaining. It was easy for Jets fans to root for Richardson for how well he played on the field, but it was far more interesting to root for Richardson the person. He wasted no time bonding with his teammates, especially the front-seven group, and they will all tell you that he immediately pushed them to work harder and get better. The rest of the front-seven is stocked with talent, but they’re much more reserved than Richardson, who said on the first day of rookie camp he felt like he and Ryan were long lost brothers because of their personalities and love for hard-hitting, aggressive defense.
Richardson brought an intensity that ramped the energy of the group up to new levels. His versatility as a player was key because he could fit in so many different positions, but his personality fit in just as perfectly as it gave new life and energy to the unit as a whole.
None of this is to suggest Calvin Pryor will win the DROY award or that he will be anywhere near the original and unique character Richardson is, Richardson most definitely dances to the beat of his own bongo, but Pryor’s speed, athleticism, versatility, instincts and fondness for talking could have him providing a similar shot in the arm to the secondary (another group full of more reserved personalities) as Richardson had with the defensive line last year.
This year the Jets had just one first-round pick, pick number 18, and the consensus was the Jets needed either a receiver or a cornerback. Once the Jets were on the clock they had corner Darqueze Dennard, receiver Brandin Cooks and safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix still on board, surely one of those three would be the pick. The Jets did choose a safety, but it wasn’t, the more traditional free-safety, Clinton-Dix it was the aggressive, hard hitting Calvin Pryor. Clinton-Dix seemed like a better fit to most, after all the Jets needed a free safety type more than another strong safety. John Idzik and Ryan clearly weren’t concerned about any of that as they were thrilled to select Pryor at 18 and their enthusiasm continues to grow with each day they spend with the kid.
People questioned the fit of Richardson just as some question if Pryor has the range to be a coverage safety, the Jets were proven right about Richardson and they expect to prove the same with Pryor.
“I think as far as the man coverage and all that kind of stuff, I don’t think he played as much man as you would think, but this young man’s got plenty of cover skills.” Ryan said on the night of the draft, “He’s got range, he’s got hands for the interceptions, so you can play him and you see him. He can play deep, he can play up, all those types of things. When we all looked at him, evaluated him, we knew he had plenty of cover skills.”
Pryor’s college coach at Louisville, Charlie Strong, who is now the coach at Texas, said they choose to play Pryor closer to the line so much because they, “trusted him to still be able get back and make a play as the last line of defense. He’s got that type of range.”
After two days of rookie camp Ryan said Pryor is the guy who keeps jumping out at him.
“I’ve been really impressed with him mentally. That’s all we’ve really had.” Ryan said, “But mentally, (he’s) sharp. He’s into it. He did some personal protector on the punt team. He’s catching it to where he doesn’t just learn his position but he’s learning how the defense works and I think that’s impressive.
“Obviously you guys, I’m sure, are starting to see that there’s going to be a lot of jerseys sold with Pryor’s name on the back. Because I have a funny feeling he’s going to become one of the more popular Jets. Smart, instinctive and is on top of it. It’s rare that it comes easy and you can see it in him. It’s just the way he communicates, just everything. He has really been everything that we wanted and then some.”
With rookie camp being what it is, mostly basic installs and no full-contact, Ryan was asked what stood out to him the most about Pryor in the first two days of camp and Ryan said, “How sharp he is. Today, you guys saw it, in 7-on-7’s he could’ve had three great shots, but he’s so instinctive. And it’s not like, I mean the guy can be a big hitter, but if you don’t have awareness or you don’t have instincts a lot of times it’s wasted unless a guy is right on there on your track. But this guy, he sees it happening and he’s got great pattern recognition and he also has an ability to time things and I think that’s what puts him in a position to make those hits.”
Ryan said Pryor grasped concepts they haven’t even gone over with him yet, he’s just that far ahead of the process. But Pryor doesn’t want all the credit for that, instead he’s happy to spread the credit to his coaching staff and new teammates.
“Just my coaches and my teammates. I look up to guys like (Dawan) Landry and (Antonio) Allen and as soon as I stepped in the door those guys have been giving me teaching points because they know if I can come in and make an impact then we’re better off as a defense.” Pryor said, “The credit goes out to those guys, I’m taking heed to what they’re saying, just trying to be as helpful as I can.”
If all of this praise and saying the right thing sounds familiar it’s because it should. It sounds very similar to what was said by Richardson and about Richardson last year. Richardson is more of a character, but Pryor has plenty of personality of his own and he’s excited to let it show on the field. Fans always love a hard-hitting safety, but a trash-talking safety who hits hard will make fans downright giddy and according to fellow rookie Tajh Boyd if there’s one thing you can count on from Pryor it’s that he likes to talk.
“We got a chance to train together, down in Florida, he’s a big talker. That’s his thing.” Boyd said, “Defense guys are a little different than the offense guys, but I enjoy him. He’s a great player, he’s going to help this team out tremendously and when I got a chance to sit down and talk with him it’s all about the transition. For him I know what type of player he is, he’s physical and like I was telling him earlier I can’t wait to see him out on the field with full pads on.”
When asked if the rumors of his trash-talking were true Pryor laughed and then confirmed the rumors.
“I’ve always been like that. That’s the main reason I don’t wear a mouth-piece.” Pryor said, “When you’re out there able to talk trash and get in guy’s heads it affects their game a little bit. That’s the main reason why I do it, but it’s nothing personal against them that’s just who I am as a football player. But outside of the field I’m nothing like that.”
People are always debating what impact trash-talk actually has on players, but Pryor absolutely believes he can get in the head of a receiver. Pryor said, “Oh no doubt about it. When you’re able to talk trash and then you go out and make plays and hit guys hard it’s kind of an intimidation factor. Like this guy means what he says, he’s ready to play so we have to step up our game. It’s all fun and games for the most part.”
Not even being a rookie will curtail Pryor’s big mouth, like Richardson he continues to stress how important it is he remains himself. “With me being a rookie that doesn’t mean anything.” Pryor said, “I am who I am, I’m going to talk trash and people who don’t like will just have to get used to it.”
Direct, matter of fact and straight to the point. If all of this doesn’t help you see potential parallels to last year’s DROY maybe this downright cocky, yet humorous response to being asked if he’d talk-trash to a player of Andre Johnson’s caliber will.
“He’s human, right?” Pryor said, “I have no problem with it at all. We’re all football players, we love the game of football, we’re out here to have fun and just enjoy it.”
Pryor might not win DROY, or even enter the discussion, but it’s hard to imagine Jets fans not falling in love with this kid just like they fell for Richardson last year.