Should Joe Douglas and the New York Jets look to reunite Robert Saleh with future Hall-of-Fame cornerback Richard Sherman?
Still an elite producer
Richard Sherman may be turning 33 years old in a couple of months, but he has yet to fall from the elite ranks of the cornerback position.
In 2019, Sherman was credited by Pro Football Focus with allowing only 227 yards over 517 snaps in coverage. That’s an average of 0.44 yards per cover snap, which was the best mark among 114 qualified cornerbacks (CBs with 200+ cover snaps).
Sherman only played five games this past season, but he maintained almost the exact same level of production when healthy. In 2020, Sherman gave up 87 yards over 202 snaps in coverage, an average of 0.43 yards per cover snap, second-best among qualifiers (trailing only fellow impending free agent Jimmy Smith of the Ravens, 0.37).
When targeting Sherman over the past two seasons, opposing quarterbacks completed 42 of 75 passes for 460 yards (6.1 per target), two touchdowns, and six interceptions, a passer rating of 49.9. With 17 first downs allowed in addition to his two touchdowns, only 25.3% of passes in Sherman’s direction were completed for conversions.
Saleh’s defensive scheme proved to be a great fit for the aging Sherman. With his physical abilities on the decline as he pushed into his 30s, Sherman needed to be in a system that asked him to rely primarily on his instincts rather than his athleticism, and Saleh gave him just that.
Under Saleh, Sherman lined up almost exclusively on the left side of the field (97.5% of defensive snaps). He typically played a conservative style, giving big cushions and often using a bail technique. This style of play allowed Sherman’s remarkable awareness, film study, and football IQ to shine, leading to elite production in spite of decimated athletic skills.
Here, Sherman gets plenty of depth to match Robert Woods‘ deep out route. Sherman positions himself perfectly at the top of the route to cut off Woods’ break towards the sideline, beating him to the spot and snagging the interception.
Sherman does an excellent job of picking up this post route by tight end Logan Thomas after it is passed off to him by the linebacker. He quickly identifies Thomas’ route as the greatest threat to his zone, getting himself into a great position over top of the route to prevent Thomas from accelerating and reaching the ball.
Having thrived under Saleh over the past few years, Sherman has experience with the principles, rules, and verbiage of Saleh’s scheme. Not only would he be a seamless fit himself, but his presence would be a major aid in helping some of the younger defensive backs on the roster make the transition into a new system.
The Robert Saleh connection
It is difficult to find a more vocal Robert Saleh fan than Sherman. The star cornerback often praised Saleh during the time they shared in San Francisco, and since Saleh has been hired by the Jets, Sherman has continued to voice his support.
Back in November, Sherman gave Saleh a ringing endorsement for his work with an injury-hampered 49ers team.
Any franchise looking for a HC should listen to Richard Sherman's take on Robert Saleh pic.twitter.com/FQFwGADNqO
— Billy M (@BillyM_91) November 30, 2020
Sherman congratulated the Jets when Saleh was hired.
The @nyjets got a great one! Congrats to them!
— Richard Sherman (@RSherman_25) January 15, 2021
In fact, Sherman loves the Jets’ situation with Saleh so much that he publicly suggested they are the best landing spot for disgruntled Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson.
🗣️ @RSherman_25 has some advice for Deshaun Watson 👀✈️ pic.twitter.com/eoDJ8PMoaO
— PFF (@PFF) January 20, 2021
An obvious one. While Sherman has not hit the wall yet, it would be foolish not to anticipate that he will hit it soon. Sherman will turn 33 years old on March 30. He has 10 years of NFL experience under his belt, playing 139 regular season games and 15 playoff games.
Between the regular season and the playoffs, Sherman has logged 8,348 defensive snaps in the league. For comparison’s sake, Darrelle Revis had played 7,828 snaps prior to his atrocious 2016 season that officially marked the end of his run as a quality NFL cornerback. Revis was even a couple of years younger at that point than Sherman is now, as Revis turned 31 in July 2016.
Will Sherman‘s new team be paying for his 2016 Revis season? Regardless of his elite production, teams should be careful not to commit to Sherman beyond the 2021 season. History has not been kind to defensive backs at this stage of their careers. Sherman has been an exception to this point, but remember, Father Time is undefeated.
Age is already starting to take a toll on Sherman in the durability department.
After not missing a single regular season or playoff game throughout his first six seasons, Sherman has played in only 46 of 67 possible games over the past four seasons (68.9%). He has not played a full 16-game season since 2016.
In 2020, Sherman was placed on injured reserve in Week 2 due to a calf strain, which kept him out for nine games. Sherman returned for four more games but missed the final two games of the season, once again battling a calf issue.
Sherman’s durability was solid from 2018-19, playing in 29 of 32 games (90.6%), but in 2017, he missed the final seven games of the season with an Achilles injury.
Down 2018 season
This coming season, Sherman will be looking to rebound after an injury-plagued year. He has only had to do that once before, and that season was a struggle.
In 2018, the season following his Achilles injury, Sherman allowed still-standing career-highs of 9.1 yards per target and a 100.5 passer rating.
Pro Football Focus grade
Although Sherman’s production remained fantastic in 2020 from a raw numbers standpoint (second-best with 0.43 yards per cover snap), his Pro Football Focus grade drastically declined, which is a worrying sign. PFF grades add some context to the numbers – for example, if a cornerback is toasted for an 80-yard touchdown but the pass is dropped by the receiver, the raw stats will simply credit the CB with an incomplete pass, making it look like he did something positive, but the PFF grade will give him the harsh blame that he deserves.
In 2019, Sherman posted an elite PFF grade to match his elite production, earning an 88.9 overall grade that led all cornerbacks.
However, in 2020, Sherman’s PFF grade did not match the elite status of his raw numbers. His overall grade fell down to 67.7, a career-low. That still ranked 37th out of 121 qualified cornerbacks (70th percentile), a strong ranking, but it’s worth noting the disparity between his grade and his raw stats. The massive decline compared to 2019 is also notable.
Another concern with Sherman is whether his elite production with the 49ers was dependent on the pressure generated by San Francisco’s defensive front. When Sherman had his down year in 2018, the 49ers did not do a great job of generating pressure, ranking 28th in the league with a 64.7 pass rush grade at Pro Football Focus. Sherman’s resurgence in 2019 directly correlated with an improved pass rush, as San Francisco ranked third-best with an 80.3 pass rush grade that season thanks to the additions of Nick Bosa and Dee Ford. In 2020, with Bosa and Ford injured for the majority of the year, the 49ers dropped back down to 29th in pass rush grade (63.6), and in turn, a performance dip from Sherman followed (in terms of his grade).
Is Sherman truly still an excellent starting cornerback, or will he be exposed on a team that doesn’t have an elite pass rush to minimize the amount of time he spends in coverage?