It’s a critical season for the 49ers, who have struggled in the secondary, and Verrett, who has struggled to stay on the field.
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Entering a new league year after a season in which they set league records for futility in takeaways (seven) and interceptions (two), the San Francisco 49ers declined to spend an early draft pick or big money in the free-agent market on a defensive back.
In fact, they made just one notable move to bolster a secondary full of questions. They targeted and signed talented but oft-injured cornerback Jason Verrett, a union that provided Verrett a chance to resurrect a promising career and the Niners an opportunity to add a potential difference-maker at a position of need without investing substantial resources.
“We looked at that risk-reward and the risk was small, the reward potentially, if we get the Jason Verrett that can be out there and be healthy is a very good football player that will make us better,” general manager John Lynch said.
Little more than two weeks into this training camp, Verrett and the Niners are already at something of a crossroads in their young relationship. On the same day that defensive end Nick Bosa suffered a right ankle injury that will keep him out of preseason games, Verrett sustained a similar injury that will prevent him from participating in the exhibition season.
Instead of a bold declaration of health and pushing for the starting job opposite Richard Sherman, Verrett’s bounce back is on hold again. And the bet the Niners placed that Verrett could return to form has only gotten bigger as they rely only on tape and a small sample of practices that he can make a difference.
“Everyone knows the ability that he has,” coach Kyle Shanahan said. “He’s one that we can be more patient with. We know the football player he is, we’ve seen the guy since he’s been here. He’s as good of a guy and as good of a competitor as I’ve been around. We’ve got ultimate trust in him, it’s just about him getting his body right.”
The Niners and Verrett are hopeful that will happen in time for the regular season opener on Sept. 8 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. If that date wasn’t already circled on Verrett’s calendar, it almost certainly is now.
During his final three seasons with the Los Angeles Chargers, injuries limited Verrett to just five games. He missed all of last season with a torn Achilles and knee injuries forced him to miss almost all of the 2016 and 2017 seasons. Aside from the 2015 season, when he played in 14 games, Verrett has never appeared in more than six games in a season.
That 2015 season — Verrett had 47 tackles, three interceptions and 12 pass deflections — led to Verrett’s first Pro Bowl berth and had many believing he was on his way to being one of the league’s next great corners. If only his body had cooperated.
All of which has brought Verrett here to the 49ers, about 75 miles south of his hometown of Fairfield, California, and even closer to his football mortality. At just 28 years old, Verrett is well aware this could be his last, best chance to become the player he and so many others believed he could be after arriving as the Chargers’ first-round pick in 2014 and that breakout 2015 season.
“I’ll just say it’s critical,” Verrett said. “Just what I’ve been through, you know, at the end of the day I’ve been through a lot of injuries … being able to see that the Niners were interested, the plan that they have for me, it gave me a great opportunity and I’m going in head first.”
Given his latest injury, it’s safe to expect Verrett to turn the urgency up another notch. As fate would have it, Verrett signed with a team that could need him every bit as much as he needs them.
The 49ers secondary was among the most-maligned units in the league last year. In addition to the records for fewest takeaways and interceptions, (neither of which came from a cornerback), they also yielded 35 touchdown passes, second most in the NFL.
Along the way, they played musical defensive backs with an ever-changing cast of corners and safeties. They had to because of injuries, under-performance or a combination of the two.
Enter Verrett. Although the 5-foot-10, 188-pound corner didn’t fit the traditional profile of the long, lanky player the Niners have sought under defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, they loved his feisty approach and knew that his injury history would allow them to sign him well below market price.
The 49ers wanted Verrett and put together a detailed plan before he visited team headquarters in March. Lynch, Shanahan, Saleh and the medical staff wanted Verrett to know they were prepared to do everything they could to get him back to playing like himself.
When Verrett arrived for his visit, they walked him through it step by step. The plan laid out a “pitch count” for Verrett through training camp practices, as well as his times to lift weights and recover and a design for meal plans.
That attention to detail, combined with the proximity to Verrett’s family and hometown, was enough to persuade him to choose the 49ers over interest from other teams, including the Houston Texans and Kansas City Chiefs.
“It was important to have that [vision],” Verrett said. “This pretty much could be the last strike for me so just seeing what they had planned for me, it was something that I couldn’t let go.”
It also didn’t hurt that Verrett was told he’d be given a chance to compete for the starting job opposite Sherman. After a disappointing sophomore season for Ahkello Witherspoon, this training camp and preseason was supposed to give Verrett a chance to battle Witherspoon for a starting job.
The early returns on Verrett were good as he slowly but surely ramped up his reps. After starting out with the second-team defense behind Witherspoon, Verrett had been getting work with the starters as Witherspoon dealt with a glute injury. On the first pass thrown his way in team drills with the starters, Verrett stayed close to receiver Marquise Goodwin, broke on the ball and knocked it away. It was a small but important step on the road back. He says he’s regaining the confidence required of an NFL cornerback after nearly walking away from football in the offseason.
Verrett has also quickly ingratiated himself with his teammates and coaches.
“He’s a dawg,” Sherman said. “He’s rugged. He’s going to be in their face. He’s going to be tooth and nail. He’s going to claw. He’s going to grind it out.”
But as quick as Verrett made a strong impression, the tables turned as Witherspoon returned from injury and Verrett departed with one of his own.
“I’m a competitor, that’s just me,” said Verrett, who credits his father, brother and cousins for instilling toughness in him. “Regardless of who’s in front of me, I’m coming after. The more and more I just get my feet up under me, the more and more I get back to being the player I know I can be.”
The latest in a series of setbacks won’t stop Verrett from trying to make that happen but whether he can or not will go a long way in determining what comes next for both him and his new team.