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Richard Sherman Is Elite, But Is He The Best Pass Defender?

Richard Sherman wants to be loved. Or perhaps just more loved.

After all, in a comeback season at age 31, on the heels of a seemingly career-ending Achilles tear in 2017, the San Francisco 49ers cornerback was named to the Pro Bowl for the fifth time and as a second-team All-Pro, a more exclusive honor. (He’s been first-team All-Pro three times, including one year, 2012, when he did not receive Pro Bowl honors.) In December, Sherman received an early Christmas present when Pro Football Focus (PFF), a leading source for NFL player evaluation, named him the best cornerback of the decade.

In Saturday’s divisional-round win against the Minnesota Vikings, he made a key interception while blanketing Minnesota’s Adam Thielen. For the game, he gave up one catch for 9 yards and was thrown at by Kirk Cousins just three times.

Sherman was a fifth-round draft pick (not even the first Sherman drafted in Round 5) and still takes issue with how scouts assessed his ability back in 2011. And he’s not happy about being cut by the Seahawks while recovering from his injury. So it was hardly surprising that after the win over the Vikings, he challenged the press to give him his proper due:

“Since I got in the league, in every category that matters to a corner, I’m No. 1 in: completion percentage, interceptions, touchdowns against, yards … passer rating. If that was any other corner, it wouldn’t even be a conversation. But I just get tired of it. In the playoffs, I played in 13 games now, zero touchdowns given up, three interceptions. Like, show me somebody else doing it like that. Then I’ll enjoy the argument. But there isn’t one.”

Sherman does his homework on Richard Sherman: Just three days earlier, he had retweeted the stats showing that he’s had more than twice as many picks in his career (37) than TDs allowed (17). And he’s had more picks than TDs allowed in six of his nine seasons.

But measuring defense in the NFL is hard. This is especially true of pass coverage: When it’s good, the quarterback typically throws the ball somewhere else. But a new metric reported on at FiveThirtyEight last week holds promise for identifying the best players in coverage beyond the raw targeting stats, separating man from zone coverage and using Next Gen Stats data from the NFL.

And what all that gives us is a tale of two Shermans. First, there’s the old-school targeting data, which accounts for when the defender, Sherman, is closest to the receiver when the ball arrives. This season, quarterbacks have targeted receivers closest to Sherman 51 times, and Sherman has allowed just 27 catches for 227 yards and a touchdown. That’s 4.45 yards per target and an opposing passer rating of 46.8.

These are elite stats. The leaguewide passer rating this year was 90.4, so QBs were about half as efficient on average throwing at Sherman than they were overall. And quarterbacks averaged 8.2 yards per pass attempt to a wide receiver in 2019 compared with the 4.45 they gained throwing at Sherman. It’s stats like these that helped make Sherman PFF’s No. 1 coverage corner in 2019.

But the newer metrics are not as kind.

By this metric, Richard Sherman is good … not great

Richard Sherman’s stats and league ranks using player-tracking data from Next Gen Stats, 2019 regular season

Man coverage Sherman Rank
Opponent Reception Plus/Minus +0.53 19th
Opponent Reception Percentage Plus 104.8 15th
Zone coverage Sherman Rank
Opponent Reception Plus/Minus -0.96 45th
Opponent Reception Percentage Plus 94.6 43rd


ESPN Stats & Information Group uses Next Gen Stats player-tracking data to track how many incompletions a defender forced above or below expected in the new metric Opponent Receptions Plus/Minus.1 That stat is centered on an average of 100, with numbers above 100 indicating more incompletions forced than expected. Sherman is still strong by this approach — but not near league-best.

Do offenses avoid targeting Sherman? You be the judge. Michael Chiang tracked the frequency of targets by opposing quarterbacks against the 49ers for the entire regular season, with dark red representing the areas most targeted by opposing passes and dark blue representing the least. Sherman plays almost exclusively left cornerback, meaning the right side from the quarterback’s perspective.

Sherman’s side of the field does appear to see fewer passes over a larger area than the other side, which is usually covered by Ahkello Witherspoon (who was benched last week). But overall, opposing quarterbacks tend to attack the middle of the Niner defense.

It’s hard to assess Sherman — partly because he’s not always going up against the best wide receivers. He generally lines up on the same side of the defense no matter where the team’s top opposing wide receiver happens to be. And he’s been criticized for this by fellow players, including by arguably the greatest cover cornerback ever, Deion Sanders.

This could end up being a problem on Sunday in the NFC championship game. Green Bay’s top receiver by far, Davante Adams, is coming off a franchise record-setting 160-yard receiving postseason game. But he caught both touchdowns (and 71 of his yards) on the side of the field that Sherman doesn’t cover. So it’s possible that Aaron Rodgers could pepper Adams with targets all game by just keeping him lined up away from Sherman. This would deprive fans of seeing an epic receiver vs. corner matchup and, perhaps, keep the 49ers from reaching the Super Bowl.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.


  1. FiveThirtyEight NFL analyst Josh Hermsmeyer notes that the “face validity” of Opponent Receptions Plus/Minus is higher for man coverage than for zone.

Michael Salfino is a freelance writer in New Jersey. His work can be found on The Athletic and the Wall Street Journal.