Antonio Richardson never worried about his future when he declared for the NFL Draft as a junior out of Tennessee.
An All-Southeastern Conference selection by the league’s coaches, Richardson was one half of bookend Volunteer tackles ready to make his mark in the NFL, along with Ju’Wuan James. Like James, Richardson’s was seen as possible Day 1 draft pick, and certain to last no longer than Day 2.
Richardson’s draft scenario played out on Twitter. He congratulated his former linemate when James was selected 19th overall by the Miami Dolphins and tweeted he hoped to hear his name soon.
The announcement never came. The call he’d been waiting for didn’t ring until the draft was over. On the other end was the Minnesota Vikings, hoping to bring Richardson in as a undrafted free agent.
"I was very surprised," Richardson said during Minnesota’s rookie minicamp. "But I’m a strong individual, it didn’t shake me. I knew that somebody would pick me up. I know what type of player that I am and I had people in my family remind me that you’re the same player that you were in 2012 and 2013, first-round talent. So, it really doesn’t matter. I’m just here to learn and just become a better player."
In Richardson’s and his family’s minds, he is still the same player who started alongside James with the Volunteers for two straight years. Richardson anchored the left side of the offensive line while James maintained the right side.
Richardson played in all 36 games in his three years for Tennessee, starting 24 straight his final two seasons.
But the cruelty of NFL Draft evaluation became apparent to Richardson.
Despite playing in every game, NFL teams took issue with his knees. He had arthroscopic surgery in 2012, but never missed a game. It wasn’t enough for some NFL teams.
Richardson was told some teams took him entirely off their draft board for medical reasons.
"It’s just one of those things that I can’t really control that," Richardson said. "I did everything that I could, in my power to be healthy. The thing is, I’m not going to let that discourage me. I’m the same player that I was in 2012 and 2013 and that’s an All-SEC player. I’m going to come in here with that same mentality, to come in here and dominate. Whether I start this year or back up, I don’t really care. I just want to earn my spot."
He has no regrets about leaving Tennessee early after falling out of the draft.
"It was one of those things where the issues were going to go on, either way," Richardson said. "I wanted to go ahead and leave where I could get the best doctors and the best medical treatment and I was able to do that. I’ve been out here. I haven’t had any issues. I’ve been moving really well and I’m looking forward to competing."
Richardson saw an opportunity to earn a spot with Minnesota, so he decided to sign with the Vikings right after the draft ended.
Minnesota had cleared Richardson medically. The Vikings weren’t searching for offensive tackles with Matt Kalil and Phil Loadholt along the line. But they couldn’t pass up the chance to add Richardson’s talent.
The man they call "Tiny" is anything but. He’s a 6-foot-6, 330-pound behemoth who is the rare player who can size up with Loadholt (6-8, 343 pounds).
At the NFL Scouting Combine, Richardson did 36 repetitions on the bench press, the second-highest total of any of the 335 players at the combine. He had 10-1/4 inch hands and 35-inch arms. He’s the prototypical NFL tackle.
"I used to call him ‘big man,’" Bridgewater said. "That hasn’t changed. He’s still pretty big as you can see. He’s just someone who’s eager to get better and just always willing to learn."
Richardson could one day be blocking for Bridgewater again. He has his chance to be in the NFL now.
"I’m out here going to do whatever I can to get on the field and I know that I’m a first-round talent," Richardson said. "So at the end of the day, I’m just going to come here and work like I was a first-rounder."