Jets praise ‘unselfish’ Sheldon Richardson, who could be key to D-line in more natural role

On paper, the Jets boast one of the most talented and imposing defensive lines in the league.

Of course, paper doesn’t mean anything once players take field. Todd Bowles learned that lesson the hard way last year, when former Pro Bowlers Sheldon Richardson and Muhammad Wilkerson combined for just six sacks after totaling 17 in 2015. Leonard Williams was the lone lineman of the three to produce, reaching the first Pro Bowl of his career.

So as the Jets march through training camp this summer, uncertainty rightfully swirls around a defensive line with a great deal to prove. And no one in the group has more on the line than Richardson, who will be a free agent after this season and is seeking a major payday.

Richardson finished with a career-low 1.5 sacks last season, and that tiny total is at least partially tied to him playing out of position during the frustrating 5-11 campaign. At times, Richardson — a 6-3, 294-pound 3-4 defensive end — played outside linebacker. He even got time at middle linebacker in a loss at Arizona.

Richardson plays the same position as Williams and Wilkerson, and moving him around was the best way to get all three immensely skilled players on the field at the same time.

The Jets will be doing less of that this season, though. In the spring, defensive coordinator Kacy Rodgers said the coaching staff will try to avoid putting Richardson in those same positions in 2017, and he doubled down on that sentiment Tuesday when speaking with the media for the first time this training camp.

Sheldon Richardson finished with a career-low 1.5 sacks last season.

As it stands, Richardson is technically not starting in the Jets base defense, but he will still play considerable snaps.

“I talked to Sheldon about this and we definitely don’t see Sheldon Richardson as a backup,” Rodgers said. “We think he’s a marquee player and we expect a lot of things out of him. And one thing we stress and are steady working on him: We’ve got to keep him in a position to do what he does best. Sheldon has been so unselfish that in years before, we’ve moved him here, we’ve moved him there. He’s done everything we asked of him. But in our last game (a preseason victory over the Titans on Saturday), we left him kind of where he’s natural, and he really did some good things. So we got to work to make sure we keep him in that situation.”

Todd Bowles, the brains behind the defense, refused to get into specifics Tuesday about how often he will use Williams, Richardson and Wilkerson together, or if he will rotate the three at defensive end to ensure no one is playing out of position.

“When we get into game plans during the season, we’ll discuss it,” Bowles said. “Right now, they’re just trying to get better. We haven’t even gotten into game plans of playing people, so that’s the last thought on my mind.”

Defensive tackle Steve McLendon doesn’t believe Richardson was uncomfortable last year.

The Jets asked Sheldon Richardson to play out of position at times last season.

“I don’t think it hindered him at all,” he said. “He took on those challenges. He liked those things, man. That helped him focus even more, because you gave him something that he loves to do. He loves to cover. He loves to blitz. He loves the middle linebacker, he loves the outside linebacker, he loves the D-line. It just kept him on his toes, and when somebody is that good, that athletic, you have to challenge them with new things.”

One thing is clear, though: Richardson is at his best when he’s playing his natural position.

It’s possible the Jets will play Williams, Richardson and Wilkerson together in sub-packages. But the days of Richardson roving are likely done.

“We were fortunate to have really good players there, and it’s kind of a fine line you juggle sometimes,” Rodgers said. “You want your best players on the field, but if they happen to be stacked at certain positions, we want to make sure we don’t do them an injustice, and give them all a chance to make plays.”

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