Corey Griffin, TheJetsBlog.comNEW YORK – Warren Sapp has never been shy about being outspoken. After Saturday night, perhaps he’ll be a little more careful with his words.
Days after Sapp was highly critical of Sheldon Richardson, the Jets defensive tackle was named the 2013 Associated Press Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Hours before he was given the award, Richardson said he “laughed” the first time he heard Sapp’s remarks.
“He had a lot to say about me at the combine, too, so I just brush it off,” Richardson said on the NFL Honors red carpet. “There’s no point in paying attention to it. It’s his opinion.”
People are paying attention to Richardson, though. On the same red carpet, Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly, who was named defensive rookie of the year a season ago, said he thought Richardson should win the award over Alonso.
The former Missouri Tiger wasn’t always so popular. After the Jets drafted Richardson with the No. 13 overall pick in April 2013, Jets fans, and many media members, were perplexed by the move. The Jets had drafted defensive linemen in the first round each of the past two years and were in desperate need of offensive assistance. In a post analyzing the move, I wondered whether Richardson would go down as the defensive line version of Kyle Brady – a reference to the Jets selecting Brady the No. 9 overall pick the spring after 1992 first-round selection Johnny Mitchell had a career year. Barring a drastic change of course, I feel confident saying I was – happily – wrong.
The day after the Jets selected Richardson, Eric Galko from Optimum Scouting, told Brian and I on the podcast that Richardson could end up being one of the best picks in the entire first round – a quick, slashing 300-pounder with the ability to play all over the defensive line. He raved about the Richardson’s potential in a Rex Ryan defense, especially paired with Quinton Coples and Muhammad Wilkerson.
Months later in Cortland, I couldn’t take my eyes off Richardson in practice. In one-on-one drills and exercises that pitted the defensive line against the offensive line, Richardson blew by whichever behemoth attempted to stop him – including Nick Mangold. I was sold. I couldn’t wait to see the kid on the field.
It didn’t take long for the NFL to see the same thing. Only weeks into the season, pundits and fans alike were raving about what Richardson could do in Ryan’s defense.
On Saturday night, Richardson said Ryan had “a lot” to do with his first-year success.
“Just knowing how to put us in a position to make plays,” a smiling Richardson said of his head coach. “And you know, just letting me be me. Not putting shackles on me and my defensive talent.”
The night the Jets drafted Richardson, we had the chance to talk to him for a couple minutes. He was ebullient, overflowing with excitement and energy and flashing an ear-to-ear smile that lit up the room. Brian and I joked about how quickly the pro game would take that out of him, but it never did. Richardson was as joyful Saturday night as he was that Thursday night in April, and I think that’s as much a part of his success as his talent or his coaching.
Always one to crack wise, Richardson was asked Saturday night about the possibility of winning both rookie of the year awards thanks to his late-season work on offense.
“Eddie Lacy beat me out there,” Richardson joked. “He had a few more touchdowns than I did.”
Richardson doesn’t forget what people say about him, but he doesn’t let it affect him.
Asked Saturday what Sapp would think of Richardson’s award, Richardson again flashed that smile and laughed.
“I have no idea. I really don’t care at the moment.”
Hilarious and true. He doesn’t care – but he won’t forget. If anything, Sapp’s comments will just serve as fuel for Richardson in 2014, much like Wilkerson’s back-to-back Pro Bowl snubs fuel him – a scary thought for offensive lines around the league.
Just think about Richardson with a season under his belt and a full offseason to grow in Ryan’s system. Maybe by then, Sapp will have learned what the rest of us already know.
Corey works for NBCSports.com as an editor and can be reached at @cgriffin415 on Twitter.