MINNEAPOLIS -- Just when Sheldon Richardson was adjusting to being a reserve for the first time in his nine-year career, it appears he will be back in the starting lineup: The question is, at what position?
When the Minnesota Vikings signed the 6-foot-3, 290-pound Richardson for a second stint with the team last June, the plan was for him to primarily be a reserve at three-technique defensive tackle. That’s the role he had for the first nine games of the season after he had started 118 of 121 games in his first eight seasons.
But with the Vikings thin at defensive end, Richardson got about half his 34 defensive snaps there in last Sunday’s 34-31 win over Green Bay. And now the Vikings again have issues at defensive end heading into Sunday’s game at San Francisco.
Reserve Kenny Willekes, who spent time on a COVID-19 reserve list, is expected back after missing two games, but starter Everson Griffen is away from the team after a mental health incident on Wednesday. Now the Vikings also have a need at three-technique because starter Dalvin Tomlinson was placed on the COVID-19 list on Tuesday and won’t play against the 49ers.
“We’ll see,” Richardson said of his role on Sunday. “They put me in a position to make plays, and I’ve got to make them.”
Vikings co-defensive coordinator and defensive line coach Andre Patterson vowed to use Richardson on Sunday at a variety of spots.
“Every place,” he said. “He’s going to play inside, he’s going to play outside.”
Ready to step in
The Vikings are expected to be without their four preferred starters on the defensive line Sunday. Star defensive end Danielle Hunter was lost for the season with a torn pectoral muscle suffered Oct. 31 against Dallas, and nose tackle Michael Pierce will miss his seventh straight game while on injured reserve with an elbow injury.
“Next man up,” Richardson said. “I hate to be so cliché, but it’s just that simple. Next man up, and don’t be the person you’re replacing. Be yourself.”
Richardson, 30, had regularly been an NFL starter. He had that role with the New York Jets from 2013-16, with Seattle in 2017, with Minnesota in 2018 and with Cleveland the past two years. But after the Vikings re-signed Richardson to a one-year, $3.6 million deal, he was pegged to be a reserve.
“I think I’ve adjusted pretty well,” he said. “Still adjusting, you know what I mean? … I’ve got to earn my right to stay on the team. That’s how I approach my daily job.”
Richardson has played some of his best football of the season in recent weeks. On Nov. 7, he had 1½ sacks at Baltimore. Against the Packers, he had a hit on quarterback Aaron Rodgers and earned the highest Pro Football Focus grade of any Minnesota defender. Richardson had practiced during the week at defensive end and looked good, so he got some game action at the spot.
“(Patterson) does what he’s doing and putting me in position to be successful and help the team win,” he said.
One of Richardson’s specialties has been pass rushing. He had a career-high eight sacks for the Jets in 2014, when he made his only Pro Bowl, and had 4½ when he started all 16 games for the Vikings in 2018.
“Even though he’s a big man, he’s athletic enough to go out on the edge and not feel out of place,” Patterson said. “I thought he did a tremendous job last Sunday. (Packers right tackle Billy Turner) was having a hard time with him working speed to power. He’s a 300-pound guy that was running and coming back downhill on him.”
Now, Patterson and the Vikings will need to sort out what to do Sunday about their shorthanded defensive line. Nose tackle Armon Watts again will replace Pierce, and defensive end D.J. Wonnum again will start for Hunter. After that, there is some uncertainty.
If Richardson doesn’t start at three-technique, another possibility is James Lynch. If Richardson doesn’t start at defensive end, Willekes could get the call.