The 49ers have started the third stage of organized team activities in 2018. At this time players and coaches are on the field for non-padded practices. Photos from the media surfaced not too long ago showing the team’s new signee and perennial All-Pro CB Richard Sherman demonstrating drills and techniques to young 49ers defensive backs.
It was great seeing Sherman moving around on that surgically-repaired Achilles tendon – but it was even better seeing second-year cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon locked arm in arm with Sherman during drills, mimicking the veteran's motion.
It confirmed what most of us initially thought, which was that the addition of Sherman would only help guys like Witherspoon and even deep safety Adrian Colbert. But in what ways and how much would his leadership produce results for the 49ers?
I myself have been on teams with great defensive backs. Not all at the same time, and each one for a brief stint, but being in the presence of such esteemed professionals opened up my eyes to just how helpful veteran leadership can be.
In 2013 with the New York Jets, I had the opportunity to be in the defensive backs meeting room with Darrelle Revis.
I didn’t say much to Revis. I just watched how he moved. This was my first time being around a truly great player and I wanted to soak up what it meant to be a professional. Revis, with three All-Pro seasons under his belt, was like another coach in the meeting room. He'd help by pointing out tendencies he picked up from watching Ryan Fitzpatrick that my eyes could not see.
Unfortunately my time with Revis was brief. Shortly after returning to the team from a holdout, he was traded to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
A new leader emerged.
Antonio Cromartie, or “Cro” as they called him, was entering his eighth year and coming off of a Pro Bowl season. As a taller cornerback myself, Cro was a guy I had watched a lot of growing up. But being on the same team as him was a lot more beneficial than watching his YouTube highlights.
I learned a lot from Cro; from AFC East receiver tendencies, to taking care of my body. Every morning when I showed up to the team facility I’d see Cromartie submerged in an ice bath reading a book. I never asked him what he was reading but between the freezing cold ice baths to being his partner in the weight room, I saw first-hand why he was able to play at such a high level for so long.
I had slim chances of making the roster, but he’d still take the time out to pull me aside and show me various techniques that'd help me improve my coverage.
Coaches don’t see everything and a lot of times they put more time and effort into higher draft picks and players that make more money, so having a player as knowledgeable as Cromartie actually on the field helping me allowed me to stick around with the Jets longer than I otherwise would have. That year I was let go but Cro put together his third Pro Bowl season.
The third great player I had the pleasure of working with was a man by the name of Clevan Thomas. Clevan is an Arena Football League Hall of Famer. He’s pretty much The Godfather of defensive backs in the AFL.
I was coming off a 2014 season with the Portland Thunder where I had 11 interceptions and was a highly sought after free agent. The San Jose Sabercats brought me in to replace Clevan, but that didn’t stop him from taking me under his wing.
Off of the field, Clevan had a close relationship with the Lord and certain things he preached about in the locker room had a lasting effect on me. It’s because of Clevan I stopped using profanity and listening to music with cursing in it. I began to be more focused on being the best professional I could be. When it came to football he taught me how to really break down film. He showed me how to pick up tendencies with concepts by formations, who was lined up where and even how to read concepts and routes in the middle of plays.
In 2015, we had the best record in arena league history going 21-1 and winning the Arena Bowl. We were prepared and knew exactly what our opponents were going to do on almost every play. Clevan had a real hand in that. The impact he had on me, as well as other players in the secondary, was a huge reason for our success.
The 49ers are hoping to get similar veteran leadership with the addition of Richard Sherman.
“Uncle Sherm,” as they call him, has been seen out with the young defensive backs group doing everything from racing go karts to treating them to dinners. It also seems as if last year's breakouts Ahkello Witherspoon and Adrian Colbert look up to Sherman. If they can buy into what he’s selling, this young secondary will develop faster than most think.
It'll trickle down the depth chart, too. The projects with exceptional athletic profiles like rookies Tavarius Moore and Tarvarus McFadden will also benefit from Sherman's tutelage. It'll only speed up their development because they will have that extra attention. And Sherman, a 6-foot-3 former receiver, is someone that understands their body types and roads to learning.
Overall the ripple effect of his pedigree in the 49ers' locker room will be vast and really invaluable. For this reason, the secondary, which was a weakness, could now be a big part of their success going forward. Last season the 49ers were tied for 24th in interceptions (10), with only six teams having less. Look for that number to increase in 2018.
With their collective length and ability to press, expect the 49ers to be stingier in the red zone, which could mean a better overall defense in points allowed. And as a unit, if they can gel and provide blanket coverage like the first iteration of Sherman's Legion of Boom, it will allow more time for the pass rush to get home. It can become a defense that can win top to bottom, instead of the other way around.
How Sherman permeates with this team and connects with the greener players on it can be a huge boon to the 49ers this season.
Media courtesy Tyvis Powell @1Tyvis, David Lombardi/The Athletic