Bobby Richardson finds himself facing a far different defensive line picture than the one he left in January.
New Orleans shifted its best defensive player, Cameron Jordan, to the “closed” end position Richardson occupied last year, drafted fourth-rounder David Onyemata and started him out at the position, spent its first-round pick on an interior rusher in Sheldon Rankins and signed veteran penetrator Nick Fairley in the offseason.
Along the way, the Saints also parted ways with Tavaris Barnes and shifted second-year defensive tackle Kaleb Eulls to offensive guard, leaving Richardson without the other two undrafted free agents who made the 53-man roster with Richardson last season.
But none of that has changed Richardson’s outlook. The No. 1 lesson he took away from his rookie season has nothing to do with what’s going on around him.
“It definitely makes your confidence a lot stronger,” Richardson said. “Now that you’ve made the team once, you know you can do it again.”
Richardson, whose fall out of the draft last spring left many observers surprised, became more important to the Saints’ defensive line than anybody could have expected. New Orleans traded Akiem Hicks and inserted Richardson into the starting lineup. Richardson played 583 snaps, making 40 tackles and an interception last season as a rookie.
And his role in the defense hasn’t changed much, only the caliber of the players around him.
“I’ve been playing inside and outside, just seeing what’s best for me,” Richardson said. “Same as the other guys. Everybody’s getting work everywhere.”
Richardson will work at the “closed” end position — lining up on the strong side and taking on both tight ends and tackles — in the base defense and shift inside as an interior rusher on passing downs, the spot where he first made an impression during training camp last year.
“I started off at closed end, and I had a few solid rushes inside, so they were telling me they could let me try inside, so I’m excited for that,” Richardson said. “Wherever I’m at, I’m going to embrace my role and play the best I can.”
Now, Richardson knows he needs to translate the pressure he produced in camp onto the field to carve out a role behind Jordan, fend off the raw Onyemata and get a chance on the inside. For all of his success last season, Richardson ended up with only half a sack.
Staying healthy could help. Richardson injured his hip early in the season and missed the Saints’ October loss to Philadephia, then played the rest of the way with the injury lingering. Offseason surgery corrected the problem, and he’s only now getting back to full strength.
“I missed OTAs, but I got back out there in minicamp and felt pretty good,” Richardson said.
By the time training camp arrives, Richardson should be healthy enough to throw himself into competition.
He’s done it once.
Richardson believes he can do it again.