Richard Sherman has spent much of his time this preseason mentoring young defensive backs such as Tim Harris.
It’s a sight that Sherman himself and the Niners had been eagerly anticipating, but one that undoubtedly made life far more difficult on Pettis as he began his second NFL season.
“I mean, that guy is, like, unreal,” Pettis said three days into camp. “If I don’t bring my best stuff every time, he knows. He called me out today and was like, ‘That wasn’t what you normally do.’ So OK, that’s true. I gotta bring something else; I gotta get better next time.”
For Sherman, the 2019 season is his own personal next time. Indeed, last season was his first since the devastating Achilles tendon tear that cost him the final seven games of the 2017 season. But to say it was Sherman’s first fully healthy season in roughly three years would be inaccurate.
Sherman played in 14 games last season, but he would be the first to tell you he was never at full strength. Instead, he spent the year doing all he could to be ready on game days and then gritting his teeth to get through each week as injuries piled up around him in the secondary.
Sherman did everything he could to adjust to the sutures clawing into his heel, remaining conscious of each movement he made and knowing the corresponding amount of pain that was sure to follow.
“And then there’s still a staple in your heel,” Sherman said. “Mechanically, I could do it. But it’s like driving your car with a nail in the tire. It’s like technically your car is still rolling, but you still got the nail in the tire.”
Despite that, Sherman managed to be the Niners’ top cornerback in 2018, allowing just one catch per 20.2 coverage snaps, third in the league among cornerbacks, according to Pro Football Focus. And opponents still showed Sherman plenty of respect, opting to throw away from him as the Niners’ other corners struggled to produce.
Now, as Sherman enters his ninth NFL season and second with the 49ers after seven seasons with the Seattle Seahawks, he finally feels like himself again. He had the sutures removed in late February and was able to go through an offseason of training to play games rather than the grueling and extensive rehab of a year ago. He even began training camp by declaring on social media that he is about to have his best season yet.
Back in the spring, teammates and coaches noticed an obvious pep in Sherman’s step that was missing last season.
“For him to come this year and be totally healthy, where Day 1 he wasn’t rehabbing, he was in the strength and conditioning program and working out, now we get to see how he probably has always looked,” San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan said. “I think he played, got through the year playing well, but he wasn’t as healthy as he has been. The guy that I see right now is a much better athlete than the guy I saw last year — stronger, bigger, faster, healthier. I assume that’s more how he looked the years before.”
Not that Sherman has ever lacked for confidence, but believing he is close to his former self is rooted in what a physically healthy body can do for his mentality.
Rather than thinking through every move, Sherman is back to reacting, just playing the game. Thoughts of how and where to plant his right foot have been replaced by instinctual reactions and accompanying movements that have made him one of the game’s best corners for nearly a decade.
Throughout training camp and preseason, Sherman has been sticky in coverage and in run support. He is a relentless leader on the sideline. Even late in preseason games that don’t count, Sherman often can be found locked in and cheering on his younger teammates.
Most important, his body seems to be holding up just fine, though the real test is still to come.
“I still feel really good,” Sherman said. “I’m moving around. It feels good just getting back in rhythm, trusting myself, trusting my body.
“You can just go out there and cut like you know how, you react like you know how. … So, I just feel really good. I put a lot of work in this offseason. And I feel really good about where I am, and I look forward to putting it on tape.”
If Sherman can indeed get back to his dominant self — or at least a reasonable approximation of that — it would go a long way in steadying a secondary that remains one of San Francisco’s biggest question marks heading into the season.
Despite a 2018 season in which San Francisco set league records for defensive futility in takeaways (seven) and interceptions (two), Shanahan and Niners general manager John Lynch opted to stick with the same group, save for a low-cost flier on talented but oft-injured cornerback Jason Verrett.
Which means Sherman is easily the most known commodity in the secondary, and his teammates will again look at him to lead.
“I can’t wait to see what he does this year, being healthy, having that full year to play, and now coming back with that confidence like, ‘All right, I’m back. I’m Sherm now. I’m back. I’m ready to do this thing,'” 49ers receiver Marquise Goodwin said. “I’m ready to see what he does. He brings a different element to this team too. His energy, his focus, his relentlessness. He is just a dog.
“And so, having a guy like that on the team with that mindset, we need that energy.”