Rejoice, 49ers fans, for football is almost here. We are four days away from the start of training camp, scheduled to begin Thursday, July 26, marking the beginning of a six-month-plus marathon that spans the NFL season. KNBR is counting down the days by highlighting San Francisco’s most important players, from No. 14 to No. 1, accompanied by coach bios for each day preceding camp.
Let’s highlight cornerback Richard Sherman, our fourth-most important 49ers player in the upcoming season.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Richard Sherman
Even when Sherman grew disgruntled with the Seattle Seahawks, the thought of joining a team he once antagonized seemed ridiculous. But Sherman associates the rivalry he helped spawn with the former 49ers brass. When he surveyed his options after the Seahawks released him in March, Sherman viewed Kyle Shanahan’s innovative offense, Jimmy Garoppolo as a superstar in the making, and a talented young 49ers team as reasons to flip to the division rival.
About 28 hours after the Seahawks released Sherman, he agreed to a three-year, $39 million deal, with essentially $7 million guaranteed, with the 49ers. The All-Pro cornerback’s contract is laden with performance-based incentives, leaving the 49ers secure if he does not return to top form.
Signing Sherman did not just mean acquiring a top-notch corner. It also meant the 49ers’ defense found a commanding leader and locker room presence, which were previously absent.
Sherman did not participate in mini-camp team drills last month, but he was heavily involved. He coached the young 49ers’ defensive backs and was his typically intense self during 11-on-11 drills. It was clear the young guys listened when Sherman spoke. He has facilitated several off-the-field gatherings among the group. He has become a mentor to cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon, who in May called Sherman an idol. His commitment to film study will rub off on his counterparts.
What has enabled all of that is the 30-year-old’s long run of dominance on the field. By the numbers, Sherman has been the game’s top corner since he entered the NFL in 2011. In the past seven seasons, he led the league in interceptions (32), passes defensed (99), and completion percentage allowed (47.4 percent). Opposing quarterbacks had a 47.7 rating when targeting Sherman. That production, much of which came at the 49ers’ expense, culminated in three first-team All-Pro nods and four Pro Bowl appearances.
He ascended alongside star safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor in Seattle. Sherman’s current undertaking is much different. The 49ers ranked 22nd in pass defense, allowing 235 yards per game, in 2017. They collected just 10 interceptions, tied for the sixth-fewest in the NFL. None of their projected secondary starters started more than eight games last year. There is a lack of quality cornerback depth, with Jimmie Ward, the team’s highest-paid defensive player in 2018, as the top backup at all five secondary positions.
Sherman is expected to participate fully in training camp later this week. Whether he returns to Pro Bowl form this season will have a major trickle-down effect. Opponents will game-plan away from his side. Improved coverage will allow the 49ers’ pass rush additional time to hit the quarterback.
Sherman has already stamped an imprint on the 49ers’ secondary without touching the field. Ultimately, he will have to prove he can overcome the Achilles rupture he suffered last November. The 49ers’ defensive success largely relies on that variable.
COACH SPOTLIGHT: Richard Hightower, special teams coordinator
Hightower rejoined the 49ers coaching staff as its special teams coordinator this offseason. He served as its assistant special teams coach in 2015 before taking the same job with the Chicago Bears in 2016.
Hightower enters his 10th season coaching in the NFL and 12th overall. In 2015, 49ers kicker Phil Dawson connected on 88.9 percent of his field goals, the 10th-best mark in the NFL. The 49ers punt coverage allowed 6.4 yards per game, ranked eighth in the league.
Hightower served as an assistant wide receivers coach with the Cleveland Browns in 2014. He was an assistant special teams coach with the Washington Redskins from 2010 to 2013. Hightower left to coach at the college level in 2009, working with the University of Minnesota receivers, including eventual third-round pick Eric Decker. Hightower served in various assistant roles with the Houston Texans from 2006 to 2008. He first worked with Shanahan, who was Houston’s offensive coordinator, during that 2008 season.
Hightower will oversee a potential position battle between punters Bradley Pinion and Jeff Locke, the former Detroit Lion and Minnesota Viking who signed a one-year deal with the 49ers in March. Locke is left-footed, which could help San Francisco’s special teams unit acclimate to a different ball trajectory.
If Locke were to beat out Pinion, the 49ers would likely have to rely on kicker Robbie Gould on kickoffs. Pinion drove a second-best 77 percent of all kickoffs for touchbacks in 2017.
This story is part of a two-week training camp countdown highlighting 49ers coaches and ranking their most important players from No. 14 to No. 1. Check out the rankings below.