Last year, I profiled Joshua Ezeudu and called him the best player on a clearly bad UNC offensive line. I noted that while he started at left guard, the UNC offensive staff frequently shifted him over to left tackle on key downs because they didn’t fully trust Asim Richards, the starter at left tackle. You can imagine, then, that if you’d told me then that a year later that it would be Richards I was profiling, I’d have suggested you go lie down for a bit until your brain started working again. But, after the arrival of a new offensive line coach to Chapel Hill in 2022 and what I can only imagine was a new level of dedication to his craft, Richards absolutely revolutionized his play last fall, becoming an absolute stalwart at left tackle and turning himself into a draftable prospect to boot. He was named to the All-ACC Third Team, invited to the Senior Bowl, and now stands a good chance of hearing his name called this weekend. Here’s a look at what his pro team is getting:
I will get into the numbers as needed below, but the short explanation of this chart is that it displays Richards’ measurements and athletic testing as it stacks up to the history of prospects at his position. Scores are out of 10. Red backgrounds indicate significantly below average, yellow backgrounds indicate average-moderately above average, and green backgrounds indicate well above average-elite scores.
Richards has a prototypical body for an offensive tackle at 6’4, 300-ish pounds, and 34-inch arms, and this year, he really learned to put it to use. He’s always been light on his feet as a former basketball player, which suits him really well in zone blocking schemes. He gets to his spots fluidly and easily and sets up at the correct angle before making contact so he doesn’t get pushed off balance or accidentally re-seal the running lane. In pass protection, he uses those long arms to land a heavy punch and doesn’t let go easily, especially with edge rushers that try to go through or around him. He has a wide base that stops him from getting run over and a good kick-slide to the outside that lets him carry speed rushers up the arc of the rush and well past his quarterback, again using those quick feet to mirror his counterpart. On a line that gave up 40 sacks last year, he was responsible for just 3.
He’s best suited as a down or angle blocker in gap schemes, where he creates movement down the line of scrimmage rather than having to knock a guy down in front of him, but in that role, he seals the edge and makes sure his running back has somewhere to go. His hand placement has become much more consistent this year and he’s gotten better at using them independent of each other to adapt to the guy across from him. And finally, he didn’t start playing offensive line until the latter half of his senior year of high school, and his meteoric improvement in 2022 speaks to his coachability and the fact that there’s a ceiling here that hasn’t yet been reached and very easily could be. Seriously, I cannot emphasize enough how stunning the change Richards’ play was last fall.
Richards seems to be fully committed to taking away the outside from pass rushers, so he’s liable to get his hips opened wide and then beaten to the inside by an athletic defensive end. He still needs to learn how to quickly react to shift his weight back to the inside and re-engage with a rusher without losing balance or getting called for holding. He’s an inconsistent one-on-one run blocker who doesn’t play with a ton of knockdown strength — he doesn’t get bench-pressed, but his play strength shows up more in the way he stands his ground than in the way he attacks. Thirteen bench-press reps at his Pro Day is a bit of a worrying stat for an offensive lineman and makes me worry a little about his fit in a more power-based run scheme. Because of that lack of drive strength, he can’t really push back when a defender gets into his chest on a pass rush, so he relies pretty heavily on his arms to keep rushers at bay, and he doesn’t quite have the foot speed to recover well on the rare occasion he is beaten to the outside. Generally speaking, at this point, he isn’t a very reactive player, and while he’s good enough at initial contact to more than get by, that’s still not unimportant at offensive line.
At the Senior Bowl, Richards took reps both at tackle and guard, the latter of which he’s almost never played at any level. While I thought he looked pretty uncomfortable in the few reps I saw, Senior Bowl director Jim Nagy is on record saying he “held up surprisingly well” on the inside. If that versatility is unlocked, that just makes him a more attractive prospect, though I’m not sure guard would be his best fit anyways given his size and strengths/weaknesses at tackle.
Like I’ve said repeatedly, Richards’ transformation into a pro prospect is something I’m still processing, but there’s no denying it’s real. I don’t think he’s quite the prospect Ezeudu was last year, but that’s a pretty high bar — I thought Ezeudu was prepared to start in his rookie year, and start a couple games he did before a neck injury took him out for the rest of the season. Richards occupies the space, for me, between where a team should be looking for instant contributors and lottery tickets — he’s already certain to be a contributor but probably not right away, and his rapid development suggests a ceiling, maybe even as an NFL starter, that hasn’t been reached. I think that makes him worthy of a late 4th or early 5th-round pick.