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(Richard) Sherman’s March to Fame and Riches

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The old lion is roaring in San Francisco.

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NFL: Detroit Lions at San Francisco 49ers Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The 7th oldest guy on the 49ers roster may be the team’s most successful player this season. And that could earn him a lot of money.

A lot of people shook their heads when Richard Sherman gave up an 18-yard pass to Minnesota’s Stefon Diggs on his first target in game one. It was a mistake spending all that money on a 30-year-old cornerback coming off of a season-ending Achilles heel injury, everyone said. But then he didn’t give up another reception until Week 6.

Per PFF, Sherman leads all NFL cornerbacks this year in every category except interceptions — and it’s hard to get those when quarterbacks are afraid to test you. Specifically, their advanced stats show that he’s been targeted only once every 19.8 coverage snaps, way ahead of the NFL’s No. 2 — Buffalo Bills cornerback Tre’Davious White — at 12.0.

After the Packers game, PFF’s analysis team said “he’s been the definition of a shutdown corner in 2018.” In a season where 13 NFL quarterbacks have passer ratings over 100 — and by the way, Tom Brady is not one of them — QBs targeting Sherman have a passer rating of just 39.6. As Ben Linsley of PFF points out, that is the same rating quarterbacks get for spiking the ball.

If you want to play with numbers, you could argue that Sherman’s most telling statistic — receptions allowed per coverage snap — plummeted after Week 6 against Green Bay, all the way down from 146 to 99. That’s technically true, because he allowed only his second reception all season, on 198 coverage plays. But it’s helpful to know that his newly reduced rate of 99 is nearly 5 times better than the league’s second best DB this year, Tre’Davious White again at 21.8 s/rec. Last year’s league leader was Cincinnati’s William Jackson III, with 26.4 snaps per reception.

A more accurate criticism might be that Sherman has not been targeted because San Francisco’s other cornerbacks are so much worse, so why bother? And the numbers back that up. Ahkello Witherspoon’s game has crumbled, youngster Greg Mabin is (charitably) up and down, and K'Waun Williams — the team’s second best DB — has a passer rating when targeted of 93.8 (vs. Sherman’s 39.6) and 12.1 snaps per reception (to Sherman’s 99).

Be that as it may, quarterbacks are clearly uncomfortable testing the NFL legend; not just rookies such as Josh Rosen, but even Aaron Rodgers, who is no less legendary himself. Rodgers — who Sherman called the league’s best quarterback after the game — threw 46 passes Monday night. Only 3 targeted Sherman, and one of those was thrown away safely out of bounds. The future Hall of Fame QB completed just one pass against the veteran DB, a check-down of two air yards when Sherman was playing ten yards back, and missed his other attempt, what we used to call a “buttonhook” — abruptly turning around at the SF 49 and coming straight back toward the line of scrimmage at no angle. (Different people might call that a dig or a curl or a hitch today.) Even though Sherman was playing off of Davante Adams by at least three yards, Rodgers threw the ball three more yards short of the turnaround point, just out of his grasp. Just to avoid Sherman’s intercepting skills.

It’s possible that quarterbacks are overestimated Sherman’s danger. The NFL record for coverage snaps per reception — which was not tracked before 2010 — belongs to Nnamdi Asomugha (at 31.1), who the Eagles signed as part of their “Dream Team” of high-priced free agents in 2011. It turned out that age had caught up with him, but no QBs wanted to test it after his years of dominating coverage. When they finally did, they found out that he had lost two steps, and Philadelphia waived him immediately after the 2012 season. The Niners signed him in April of 2013, and he played only two months before he was out of the game forever.

A couple of analysts have argued that Sherman has been lucky, because quarterbacks missed open receivers he was covering. That may be true, but it’s also possible that Sherman forced them out of their planned routes, and that the QB threw to the designated landing zone. Unless the sports pundits overheard the discussion in the huddle, there is no way to really know. But if Aaron Rodgers can’t figure out how to beat you, I’m not sure any QB can.

It’s very interesting to watch Sherman’s technique. He often lines up diagonally to the receiver, as if he is staring at the quarterback (which I seriously doubt), or even perpendicular to the WR. Here’s a screen shot of how the CB aligned on that incomplete buttonhook I mentioned earlier. Even on a pretty bulletproof play, Rodgers threw safely far away from Sherman (and erred on the side of caution, the short side here).

On his other incomplete, Green Bay was at the 11, and Aaron Rodgers is nearly invincible in the red zone. Sherman covers the right side of the field in the cover 3, and Marquez Valdes-Scantling lined up in a very nasty split, nearly inline at the wing position just outside (and a step behind) the tackle. But Sherman clearly had predicted that the ball was coming his way on an out route. He played back, with inside leverage, and Rodgers was forced to throw it away, out of bounds.

It’s hard to imagine that Sherman could keep up these all-time best statistics through the end of the season. But he can have a big drop off and still be the NFL’s best cornerback. That’s where things get interesting.

Remember how he negotiated his own contract, and got tons of criticism for signing an incentives-laden deal with few guarantees? Well, the Stanford graduate bet big on himself, and could be in line for a huge pay day if he’s chosen as an All-Pro, as Adam Stites of SB Nation points out.

If that happens, his scheduled [but otherwise unlikely] $16 million in base salary for the 2019 and 2020 season[s] becomes fully guaranteed. Add that guaranteed salary to his $1 million prorated signing bonuses that hit in each of the next two years and $2 million roster bonuses, and Sherman will be one of the highest paid players at his position until he becomes a free agent at age 33 in 2021. It helps too that he doesn’t have to split anything with an agent.

Was Richard Sherman confident that he’d come back from a serious injury at age 30 and dominate the league? Or did he realize that the rest of the Niners’ DB corps wasn’t as good as advertised, and that QBs would pick on them and leave him alone? Either way, he has surprised the pundits and set himself up for a beautiful payday at an age when most cornerbacks are happy just to stay in the league.