49ers look to Richard Sherman to provide leadership for young defense

Richard Sherman has a strong reputation as a player who is willing to mentor his younger teammates. ESPN.com

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- In their search for help at cornerback this offseason, the San Francisco 49ers ultimately decided to stop searching for someone like Richard Sherman and went straight to the source instead.

For many reasons, adding Sherman made sense for the 49ers so long as you could look past his history as one of the franchise's biggest rivals. At the top of that list was the fact that Sherman was an easy scheme fit in coordinator Robert Saleh's Cover 3-heavy defense. In fact, Sherman's combination of size, long arms and intelligence makes him the prototype for all teams seeking corners to fit in a similar defensive alignment.

Perhaps lost in the mix of the reasons Sherman and the Niners were ultimately a match, though, is one that the 49ers viewed as critically important: leadership. After parting ways with linebacker NaVorro Bowman in the middle of the 2017 season, a fair question to ask was who, exactly, was leading a defense full of young and impressionable players?

Sure, the 49ers had veterans such as safety Eric Reid and defensive tackle Earl Mitchell, but an established, perennial Pro Bowl type of talent the likes of Bowman was nowhere to be found. On a defense that by the end of the season had nine starters still on their rookie contracts, adding a veteran leader was almost as important as filling the need at cornerback.

"He brings a championship pedigree," general manager John Lynch said. "And an absolutely wonderful competitor that we wanted to [have] his presence around our guys."

Sherman's reputation as a fiery, outspoken personality has often overshadowed his work as a veteran mentor for his younger teammates. In seven seasons in Seattle, Sherman was often credited for his willingness to help younger teammates, particularly young defensive backs. Sherman's cerebral approach to studying video and ferocious practice mentality were things he regularly shared with his fellow defensive backs and other defenders.

In San Francisco, Sherman will be charged with having a similar effect. As the 49ers continue to try to find ways to help troubled but talented linebacker Reuben Foster, who has been arrested twice this offseason, having another leader like Sherman should only help.

It's a job Sherman already has made clear he's willing to take on in conversations with coach Kyle Shanahan.

"We talked about a lot of our guys and you can tell that that's something that's important to him with whoever," Shanahan told reporters at this week's NFL owners meetings. "I know he's excited about Reuben because he knows how good of a player he is. I know he's excited to help our secondary out. You bring in lots of veterans who say that type of stuff, but you can tell Sherm really means it and I think he'll be really good for our team.

"He's the type of guy that you want to be that way, too. Not all veterans can teach it the exact right way, but Sherm is a talented guy who is a student of the game and the reason he's been so successful is because of his talent with what's upstairs. And anybody who has that type of knowledge and is willing to share it, especially when you're playing in a very similar scheme, that experience I think will help a lot of our guys."

How, exactly, can that manifest with players? In a 2016 story recounted on the Seahawks' team website, newly signed Seahawks cornerback Neiko Thorpe had just wrapped up his first practice with the team when Sherman pulled him aside and began giving him instructions on how to improve his technique. Such stories became common from Sherman's time in the Pacific Northwest.

In San Francisco, Sherman will undoubtedly get a whole new crew of teammates with whom he can offer tips on everything from working in the scheme, to watching film, to approaching certain situations, to interacting with the coaching staff. No detail is too small.

"I’ve always been a guy to take young guys under my wing and give them any advice that they’ve wanted or they were seeking," Sherman said. "Whether it’s staying after practice and spending countless hours of just technique or up in the film room when nobody is watching, ‘This is what I see. This is how I see it. This is situational football. These are fundamental things for me that I look for in a formation in a game, in a player, in a split.’ I look forward to helping this group grow.

"I think that one of my best attributes is leadership and helping guys get the best out of themselves. And I think that at the end of the day, that’s all I want to do. I want to help them become better men and better players. Whatever that may be. If that means on the field just communicating better, if that’s off the field, just getting your affairs in order in a better way that’s more conducive of success, I think that’s my job and I take that responsibility seriously.”