Richard Sherman steps right into leadership role for 49ers defense

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Before Richard Sherman signed a free-agent contract with the San Francisco 49ers in March, Niners cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon had a feeling that Sherman was not only going to fit in with his new team but take on an important leadership role for the team's young defense.

In the short time Sherman has been with the 49ers, his embrace of that role has been easy to see. From organizing (and paying for) group outings with the secondary to acting as a de facto assistant coach during organized team activities, Sherman is already the undisputed voice of the 49ers' defense. All of that without so much as taking a single repetition at his starting cornerback position while recovering from last November's Achilles injury.

According to Witherspoon, Sherman's immediate chemistry with a team that was once his most hated rival was written in the stars.

"I attribute it to him being a fellow Aries," Witherspoon said. "So we understand each other on a different level. ... I'm not a perfect astrologist, but I think there's just some characteristics we have that just go well with football: confidence, very mellow, but when the time comes have that spark, that fire, competitive, I think it's not just a coincidence."

Astrology aside, it's no surprise that Sherman is doing everything he can to provide guidance in San Francisco's locker room, particularly for a secondary that, aside from him, has no projected starters with more than three seasons in the league and a cornerback group with an average age of 23.8.

"When he talks, everybody listens," defensive tackle DeForest Buckner said. "That's the kind of respect everybody has for him in the locker room and his presence alone is real strong.

"Our team is pretty young and there's a couple veterans that we let go last year, so throughout the season we were pretty young, especially on defense. So having a veteran guy like that with the résumé he has coming in, he's going to do a really good job with helping us lead this team and put us in the right direction."

In his seven years in Seattle, Sherman built a reputation for working with the Seahawks' young defensive backs on everything from tape study to technique. So when the Niners signed him in hopes that he could be the lockdown corner the defense needs, they also did so with the expectation that he would have a similar effect on the team's impressionable young defense.

"I think that one of my best attributes is leadership and helping guys get the best out of themselves," Sherman said. "… 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."

Sherman's serious approach to helping his teammates in any way possible was evident soon after his signing with the team. Signed on March 11, Sherman appeared at linebacker Reuben Foster's arraignment on April 12. At that point, Sherman hadn't yet gotten to know Foster but said he wanted to support the second-year linebacker, whom he noted had no family in the area to provide support.

Once the Niners began their offseason program on April 16, Sherman began to seek ways to build cohesion with the rest of the secondary. Sherman has since taken his fellow defensive backs out to dinner, bowling and to race go-karts.

The opportunity to spend time with Sherman and pick his brain on matters related to football and life has been a dream come true for some of the Niners' young defensive backs.

"Growing up watching him playing, it's a surreal feeling being in that same room as him, sharing the locker room with him," said Niners third-round draft pick Tarvarius Moore. "Since Day One you can tell he's just another awesome man, just a genius, really. That guy is definitely going to be a defensive coordinator one day. I mean, he knows everything that goes on in the defense, every single position, and any question that you've ever had or that you could ask, he has an answer for. It's definitely a blessing to be in that locker room with him."

On the field, Sherman isn't expected to participate in practice again until the start of training camp as he continues injury rehab. That hasn't stopped him from being omnipresent throughout the Niners' OTAs. At the team's second OTA last week, Sherman did some running on the side before joining his teammates as the session began. Sherman spent time throwing passes to the young defensive backs as they went through individual drills.

As the team drills began, Sherman closely watched every rep and immediately stepped in to offer pointers or praise for the defensive backs. Moore, who is transitioning from safety to corner, didn't lack for attention and guidance from Sherman.

"I know the system but they won't let me play ball," Sherman said, "so I've got to do my best to get out there and make an impact."

Because Sherman came from a Seattle defense that's nearly identical to what the Niners run, he has had no trouble adapting to his new team from an X's and O's standpoint. He's well-versed in the technique the scheme requires and is quick to offer tips to help understand coordinator Robert Saleh's defense. Sherman's teachings go beyond the details. He likes to explain big-picture concepts that allow his teammates to see things like how offenses are trying to attack and how receivers are trying to run routes.

Witherspoon, at 6-foot-2 and 195 pounds, is an inch shorter than Sherman, but it was Witherspoon's size and length that San Francisco wanted when it drafted him in 2017. The Niners were, essentially, looking for their own Sherman.

Now, Witherspoon gets the opportunity to learn from Sherman up close.

"It was incredible the way it worked," Witherspoon said. "All I wanted throughout college was to play across from Sherman. He was an idol of mine. ... In terms of playing across from him, I just wanted it so I could understand what he knows and learn the game how he sees it to build on the athleticism and what I already bring to the game."

The lessons are coming fast. At the secondary's go-kart outing, Witherspoon found out the hard way that Sherman's competitive drive comes with no off switch. After leading a race for 15 of 18 laps, Witherspoon found himself nearly lapping fellow defensive back Trovon Reed as Sherman attempted to make up ground.

Alas, Reed would not allow Witherspoon to pass, eventually creating an opening for Sherman. According to Witherspoon, Sherman soon caught up, bumping Witherspoon and Reed, causing them to spin out and allowing him to take the checkered flag.

Witherspoon was left with a second-place finish and calling shenanigans on Reed and Sherman, who spent time together in Seattle in Reed's three stints with the team since 2015.

"Don't they have Seattle ties?" Witherspoon asked, already knowing the answer.

While the fix might have been in, it was only fitting for Sherman to finish first. After all, if the Niners' young secondary is going to take a step forward in 2018, it's going to come from following his lead.