FOXBORO -- Jordan Richards sauntered off the Patriots practice fields, sopping but smiling. He had just finished his first fully-padded training camp practice, his first competitive day in pads since a late-December bowl game when he helped Stanford beat Maryland.
The weight of the plastic on his shoulders, the temperatures that hovered around 90 degrees late last week, it all felt very familiar for the rookie safety who grew up outside of Sacramento in a town called Folsom.
"This," he said beaming, "is California-esque."
Richards, the Patriots second-round pick in this year's draft, has quickly made himself right at home in New England. On the field, he has made a handful of standout plays against older, more established pros. Off the field, he's impressed his teammates and coaches alike with his football intelligence and his diligence in the classroom.
"The thing that sticks out the most about him is he’s a very smart guy," said Patriots safety Devin McCourty. "I think he’s a guy that is hungry. He came in Day One knowing as much as possible for a rookie. The thing is we stay on him to keep playing through mistakes. He is so smart and understands so much that he hasn’t made very many mistakes."
Richards missed portions of the Patriots organized team activities because, per NFL rules, he was required to finish out his college schedule before reporting to the team. Still, he committed time to studying the materials that the Patriots coaching staff gave him in order to be well-prepared for when he traveled east to begin his career in earnest.
"We didn’t see a whole lot of him in the spring," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "He didn’t come in until late, missed part of the OTAs finishing up school. But he’s a smart kid, picks things up quickly and he seems to be a pretty instinctive player. He has a good feel for the ball and awareness. He’s a communicator back there. We’ll see how it goes."
On the team's first day of training camp practice, Richards announced his presence by picking off second-year quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo in the red zone. The next day he helped breakup a throw from Tom Brady to Rob Gronkowski in the end zone. Then, during the team's first practice in pads, Richards was matched up with tight end Scott Chandler in a one-on-one drill where he went up, challenged the 6-foot-7 target, and dislodged the ball from Chandler's mitts.
Richards has tried to live by a mantra that is a tough one to execute, especially for a rookie: Play "mistake-free football" from snap-to-snap. So while it's nice to have a successful practice repetition against an All-Pro like Gronkowski, it's not something on which Richards is about to dwell.
"It's just competing, to be honest," Richards said. "I've got great coaching from my safeties coach and a lot of great insights from the safeties in that room and the defensive guys. It's not letting the moment overshadow you. I know Gronk is a proven player in this league, darn good football player, and all those other tight ends as well. They've played more football than I have, surely. It's just lining up and competing."
If Richards didn't have enough to live up to as a second-round selection, the position he plays and the number he wears, No. 37, has drawn some inevitable comparisons to one of the most important players of the Patriots championship runs in 2003 and 2004.
The Stanford grad with the public policy degree has done his homework, no surprise. He understands what Rodney Harrison meant to New England, but as a rookie, Richards is more focused on getting his feet underneath him.
"I know who wore it, and I made sure I looked up my history," Richards said of Harrison. "Obviously that’s a dude who has played a lot of good football, and has earned a lot of respect in this organization and around the league.
"For me, it’s being the best football player I can be. But I know what the jersey [means] and the legacy he set here with this number."
So far, Richards has made it look good.
Here are some quick updates on other Patriots rookie draft picks and what we've noticed from them in camp...
Malcom Brown, DL, first round: Has shown some good power and flashed quickness in the middle of the Patriots defensive line. Worked his way to the quarterback, almost unimpeded, during a one-on-one period on Sunday. That earned him a chest-bump with fellow defensive lineman Dominique Easley. Has had some difficult battles with second-year center Bryan Stork, but the strength of his 320-pound frame makes him hard to move.
Geneo Grissom, DL, third round: Quickly got by fellow rookie Shaq Mason during one-on-ones Sunday. At 6-foot-4, 254 pounds, doesn't necessarily stand out for his size, but appears to be a good athlete who could compete effectively on special teams.
Trey Flowers, DL, fourth round: Catching our eye with two good reps in one-on-one matchups with Mason and Jordan Devey, Flowers also had a few welcome-to-the-NFL moments when matched up against left tackle Nate Solder. Not an easy task for a first-year player.
Tre' Jackson and Shaq Mason, OL, fourth round: Through four days of work, the pair has consistently lined up alongside center Bryan Stork and in front of quarterback Tom Brady at the right and left-guard spots, respectively. Mason, who did far more run-blocking than pass-blocking in college, had a hard time handling fellow rookies Grissom and Flowers in one-on-one drills on Sunday. Otherwise has seemed to hold his own. Jackson's size makes him an imposing interior blocker, and this week Belichick alluded to the fact that his familiarity with Stork -- the two played together at Florida State -- could help him adjust to the pro game.
Joe Cardona, LS, fifth round: The long-snapper has worked closely with special teams coaches Joe Judge and Ray Ventrone on making the quick transition from snapping to picking up rushers in punt situations. In the NFL, Cardona explained Sunday, he will be expected to do more blocking than he did in college.
AJ Derby, TE, sixth round: Was not spotted at either padded training camp session.
Matthew Wells, LB, sixth round: Has been noticed as an active participant during special teams portions of practices. That avenue will be the most likely way for the 6-foot-2, 215-pound 'backer to make the team.
Darryl Roberts, CB, seventh round: Taken a good number of reps against established Patriots contributors in seven-on-seven and 11-on-11 periods. A good athlete, he's been given a chance in a relatively inexperience corner group. On Saturday had a difficult stretch when he allowed three completions on three targets, including two that went for touchdowns.
Xzavier Dickson, LB, seventh round: Another special teams regular through four days, Dickson has worn a red non-contact jersey for the team's two padded practices.