Ability has never been a problem for Paul Richardson. Opportunity, as well as health, however, have at time been issues for the speedy Seattle Seahawks receiver. But in the midst of his fourth season in the NFL, Richardson is both healthy, and as a starting receiver, getting an opportunity to show what he can do, and as a result, he is showing why he was a second-round pick in the 2014 draft.
If you simply looked at Richardson's career numbers, it would appear something changed in his play late last season when he emerged as one of Russell Wilson's top targets over the final four weeks of the regular season and playoffs, success he has been able to build off through the first five games this season. But when Doug Baldwin was asked this week what has changed about Richardson, his answer was "not much."
"When he came in, he was weirdly mature for his age," Baldwin said. "I don't know if that is weird, but he came in as a different rookie. Very mature, very thoughtful. I think for him, it was a series of unfortunate injuries that he had to deal with, and now he is able to demonstrate his full ability as a wide receiver in our offense. I think that is more so what has changed is that his opportunities are there because he hasn't had to deal with the serious injuries."
Mature or not, talented or not, Richardson had a hard time getting on the field as a rookie playing behind Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse and Percy Harvin.
"I came to a team that had just won the Super Bowl three months before I got here," Richardson said. "I came to a team where the top three receivers all scored touchdowns in that Super Bowl. There's no other receiver besides me and (fellow 2014 draft pick) Kevin Norwood who went into that situation, so it was rough to begin with. And it's not a pass-first offense… The opportunities just weren't there."
Richardson doesn't say that in a complaining manner, but instead as a matter-of-fact description of the situation he came into. Richardson still was able to earn more playing time as the season went on and finished the year strong, only to tear his ACL in a postseason win over the Carolina Panthers. His return from that injury lasted less than one game, as Richardson pulled his hamstring while making his lone catch of the 2015 season, an injury that landed him on injured reserve.
Last season, Richardson was again the fourth player in a receiver rotation that leaned heavily on three players, Baldwin, Kearse and Tyler Lockett. But as the season went on, Richardson began to carve out a bigger role, then when Lockett's season ended with a broken leg, Richardson became a huge part of the passing game down the stretch, catching eight passes for 82 yards and a touchdown in Seattle's final two regular season games, and seven passes for 131 yards and a touchdown in two playoff games.
This season, Richardson has started every game along with Baldwin, and he is second on the team in receiving yards with 208, tied for the team lead in receiving touchdowns with two, and his 14.9 yard-per-catch average is the highest on the team among players with more than four catches.
"I guess it's just opportunity," Richardson said. "I was healthy last year too. I've been doing the same thing since my rookie year. I've just been getting better at making plays when I get the opportunity. It's just that there have been more balls available to make plays.
"I am having fun. I'm working on being the best leader I can be for our group, making sure Doug and I stay on top of our group about what we need to be doing, as well as holding ourselves accountable. That's what I've been focusing on, just seeing how we as a group can help our offense and help our team."
Richardson hopes to build off of that early-season success, and to ensure he doesn't miss a beat, he worked out with Wilson at USC while home in L.A. during the bye week. Wilson, who also spent time in the offseason working out with Richardson in L.A., has been impressed with what he has seen out of Richardson.
"He has been really explosive," Wilson said. "You think about the last game that he played in and he had some big time catches, getting up field, making people miss, running over guys, caught a couple touchdowns so far and he can really do it all… I was fortunate to be able to work with him (in the offseason) and to see his attention to detail, to see the love and the passion that he put into every day. Even this bye week, to be able to work with him this bye week and the work that he put in. He is very controlled in his mind right now. He is at peace. He also has this fire and passion that he plays with and he is as fast as anyone can be. He has world class speed. He's got world class hands and he's got world class toughness too. He really demonstrates that at a high level. He's not one of those guys that is going to play football soft. He is one of those guys that is going to play as tough as he can be and he is going to attack the football when it is in the air and he is going to run by you and make you miss. He is going to do all those things that you want and that is what makes Paul Richardson so great."
Richardson's toughness was never more evident than when, in Seattle's Week 2 win over the 49ers, he came back into the game after dislocating his finger to make the game-winning touchdown catch.
"For him to have that injury to his finger and his hand and then to come back in—especially if you had seen it, it was pretty ugly—just for him to come back in, it shows what he is willing to do for our football team," Wilson said. "And that is what we all want from the 11 guys on offense, to the 11 guys on defense, to 11 guys on special teams, we want everyone to be all in at all times and that is what we are doing. You can definitely feel it. You can sense it. You can notice it on the field. Paul is just another great demonstration of that."
The best photos from the Seahawks' Wednesday practice at Virginia Mason Athletic Center in preparation for Sunday's Game against the New York Giants.