Third in a daily series looking at the Green Bay Packers' free agents in advance of the start of the 2016 league year March 9.
The Green Bay Packers had big plans for Sean Richardson in 2015.
A core special-teams player and intriguing safety at 6-foot-2, 216 pounds, Richardson returned to Green Bay on a one-year, $2.55 million guaranteed contract after general manager Ted Thompson matched an offer sheet issued from the Oakland Raiders to the restricted free agent.
Afterward, his former Vanderbilt teammate, Casey Hayward, joked to Richardson that the former undrafted rookie was making more than him as a second-round pick in the 2012 NFL draft. It looked like the two former Commodores were set to enjoy another season together in the Packers’ secondary.
Then, Richardson's neck flared up again. One month into the 2015 season, the Packers placed Richardson on season-ending injured reserve due to a herniated disc in his already surgically repaired neck.
Two years ago, Richardson was one of the rare exemptions to the rule of the Packers clearing a player who has undergone cervical neck fusion surgery. They passed on tight end Jermichael Finley, safety Nick Collins and defensive lineman Johnny Jolly, and none of those three ever played in the NFL again.
The Packers cleared Richardson the first time because the fusion performed by Dr. Robert Watkins in January 2013 occurred at the C-5 and C-6 level. As a rule of thumb, the lower you get on the spinal column, the less of a chance there is of a catastrophic injury. After returning late in 2013, Richardson played in all 18 games in 2014.
The downside is the surgery leaves the fused discs inflexible and puts more stress on the vertebrae above and below the fusion. Multiple NFL sources have said his recent setback was related to a nearby disc and likely will result in the end of his career with the Packers, if not the NFL.
“I don’t know that,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said when asked Thursday whether Richardson will play again. “That’s a conversation that I haven’t been a part of with (team physician) Pat McKenzie. I know that (Richardson) feels really good about it. Sam (Barrington), Jordy (Nelson), Sean, I think it’s important when your guys get injured like he was to keep him involved.
“Being there every day definitely helped him, and it was good to have him here, too. He looks like he’s starting to get back into it, because he really thinned down there for a while. I’m not sure, we haven’t talked about him medically.”
What doesn’t help Richardson’s case for another comeback in Green Bay is the Packers are fairly stocked at safety with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Morgan Burnett, Micah Hyde and special-teams captain Chris Banjo. The secondary was in dire straits when Richardson returned in November 2013.
The decision to re-sign Richardson in the first place was rather confounding based on his injury history and limitations as a safety. Despite his prodigious size, he went undrafted in 2012 due in large part to tight hips, coverage concerns and questions about where he would play at the next level.
The Packers planned to carve out three-safety base and nickel packages with Richardson playing in the box, but scrapped those plans after his injury. He played in only three games with four tackles before his season officially ended.
Those persistent neck issues have played a big role in the fifth-year safety playing in only 30 of his first 64 NFL regular-season games. For that reason, the Packers likely will move on this offseason.
Sean Richardson, fifth-year safety
The skinny: Unrestricted free agent.
The snaps: 98 total (48 defense, 50 special teams).
The stats: Four tackles in three games (one start).
2015 salary: $2.55 million.