Prior to the start of free agency, the 49ers swooped in, courted and made a splash signing in the form of All-Pro Richard Sherman. Cornerback was a huge position of need, as the team had reportedly been in the market for one for a while, doing due diligence on every name from Joe Haden last August, to recent potential trades for Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib, both of whom wound up with the rival Los Angeles Rams.
But in due time, the 49ers found their guy. Sherman’s 2017 tape is as good as it gets.
He flashed toughness, field awareness, IQ and swagger. Sherman had a knack for being in the right place at the right time and this was not by coincidence. His film study was often on display making it tough for opposing teams to attack him. Whether from a press bail or off coverage, he showed the ability to look through the receivers and read route concepts that put him in position to take away multiple receiver options.
Sherman also uses his length in press coverage very well. He shows supreme fluidity, great hips and feet to stay attached to receivers. What really stands out to me is his ability take away his receiver out of press man and continue to work to make a play on the ball thrown away from him.
The 49ers also struggled to shadow receivers.
While it’s not ideal to play Sherman in the slot, he was able to cover great NFC West receiver Larry Fitzgerald both outside the numbers as well as in the slot. He wasn't asked to follow opposing teams' #1 receivers often, but at times he'd be asked to play specific receivers there.
Typically long-legged defensive backs struggle in the slot. The leg turnover vs. smaller, quicker receivers in space just doesn’t match up well. On several occasions he showed the ability to play man in the slot and make plays on passes downfield. Here we see him blanket Washington receiver Josh Doctson before coming up with the pick.
Another area the 49ers struggled was in goal situations against bigger targets. Sherman has the ability to line up against much larger NFL receivers and get aggressive with them.
I can go on and on about Sherman’s film and his ability, but let’s be honest, his ability isn’t the issue here. Coming off of a ruptured Achilles that happened in Week 9 is the biggest question mark. As it should be. The 49ers also protected themselves with a heavily incentive-based contract.
If Sherman is “Sherman,” he will be paid like an elite cornerback. If Sherman does not play well, he will receive a $7 million dollar base salary or be released.
But there's reason to be optimistic.
Former 49ers linebacker Navarro Bowman at age 28 ruptured his Achilles early in the 2016 season. After starting off slow in the 2017 season, Bowman finished strong with the Raiders and graded out as the 11th-best linebacker in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus. Michael Crabtree at 26 years old had the same injury in Spring of 2013. He returned late in that season and contributed to a deep playoff run, including 8 catches for 125 yards vs. Green Bay. In 2015 at the age of 32, Terrell Suggs ruptured his Achilles. He came back in 2016 with 8.5 sacks, and put up 11 more in 2017.
A ruptured Achilles does not have to be the end all be all. If there’s anything we’ve learned through the years about Richard Sherman, it is that he’s a fierce competitor. With his attitude, work ethic and the chip on his shoulder, there’s no doubt in my mind that Sherman can and will be a legit starter for the 49ers in the 2018 season. Bringing all those qualities to a very young secondary should elevate the play of the San Francisco defense.
Media courtesy AP Images