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Richard Sherman won a risky bet on himself that not every NFL player should make

Richard Sherman’s contract was his only chance at getting the salary he knew he deserved. Few players should follow his lead, though.

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49ers cornerback Richard Sherman with his arms outstretched superimposed on a black and white background
Richard Sherman finished the 2019 regular season as a Pro Bowler and a second-team All-Pro,

Richard Sherman was arguably the best cornerback in the NFL for most of his seven seasons with the Seattle Seahawks. He was named Pro Football Focus’ top cornerback of the decade and his 32 interceptions between 2011 and 2017 were five more than any other player in the league.

Unfortunately, that era of dominance in Seattle ended with an Achilles tear during the 2017 season. The team opted for a defensive rebuild and that meant parting with the aging members of its Legion of Boom secondary. Four months later — and a few weeks before Sherman’s 30th birthday — the Seahawks released the cornerback and recoup $11 million in salary cap space.

Sherman believed he could return from his devastating injury and continue to be an elite cornerback into his 30s. But convincing a team of that? Well, that was going to be tough.

His only realistic options were:

  1. Sign a middling contract that’s largely guaranteed. It’s a common path for players deemed past their prime. Take Jordy Nelson’s deal with the Raiders during that same 2018 offseason, for example. Then 32, he signed a two-year, $14.2 million contract, a decent amount even if it was well lower than his days as one of the top 10 highest-paid receivers in the NFL. Despite only playing one season in Oakland, Nelson received $10.97 million of that money.
  2. Sign for a whole lot more, but without the guarantees. Plenty of players swing for the fences like this. “I lose players every year because an agent will tell players ‘I can get you $60 million,’” agent Greg Linton told SB Nation in 2018. “I can get you $100 million! It’ll be five years, $100 million with about $8 million in the first two years and a roster bonus of $90 million in year three. I can put anything I want on paper.”

The latter was the route taken by Sherman. His three-year deal with the 49ers had a maximum value of $39.15 million, which amounts to a top 10 salary among cornerbacks. But, if Sherman was a shell of his former self — or unable to perform due to injury — the contract had the potential to pay out just a fraction of that total.

It was a significant risk for Sherman, who essentially bet millions that he’d be great once again. His contract — which is broken down in full here — leans heavily on Sherman earning Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors. He eventually won his bet.

Why Sherman’s contract was mocked by critics

Sherman was largely blasted for the contract he signed with San Francisco. Incentive-laden deals that are light on guarantees are typically considered favorable for teams, and unfavorable for players.

Most of the criticism revolved around the fact that Sherman negotiated that type of contract on his own, without the help of an agent. That’s not entirely unique — other players, including Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner and Chargers offensive tackle Russell Okung — have done the same.

Wagner is currently the highest-paid inside linebacker in the NFL and secured $40.25 million in guarantees on his three-year, $54 million deal.

Okung, on the other hand, negotiated a terrible five-year, $53 million deal for himself with the Broncos in 2016 that earned him just $8 million and was voided after one season. He did better the second time around with a four-year, $53 million deal from the Chargers that had $25 million in guarantees.

Sherman’s contract with the 49ers appeared comparable to Okung’s with the Broncos, because of the possibility that it could wind up being a relatively cheap one-year deal. As a consequence, many jumped at the chance to lambast the cornerback for not using an agent.

“The thing I’m most frustrated about is all the people that were so high on bashing this deal refuse to bash the agents that do awful deals every year,” Sherman told reporters in 2018 via Pro Football Talk. “There are agents out there that are doing $3 million fully guaranteed deals that look like $50 million deals. When the guy gets cut after two weeks or after a year, and the guy only makes $5 million of a $50 million contract, nobody sits there and bashes the agent.”

Sherman is right when he points out that incentive-based contracts aren’t unique to those without an agent. A number of players have received similar contracts with the help of someone negotiating on their behalf.

Those types of deals are especially common for players who enter free agency without the leverage of health and the prime of their career. Sherman even said as much in a recent Twitter conversation with longtime Browns offensive tackle Joe Thomas.

PFT’s Mike Florio pointed out potential pratfalls of the contract — most notably, incentives that don’t fully guarantee until the third day of the following league year, and could be exploited — that could’ve been avoided with an agent. But for the most part, Sherman’s contract was pretty normal for a player with something to prove.

And he took the chance to dunk on the critics when he turned his risky contract into a lucrative deal after its second year.

How Sherman proved the doubters wrong

While Sherman didn’t make the Pro Bowl in his first season with the 49ers, it wasn’t exactly a bad year for the cornerback. He gave up just one touchdown, but — for the first time in his career — he finished a season with zero interceptions.

That was because opponents hardly ever threw his direction. He was targeted once every 12.6 snaps in coverage in 2018, making him the least-targeted cornerback in the NFL.

That’s both a sign that he was doing relatively well in coverage, and also an indictment of a struggling 49ers secondary that couldn’t cover anyone else. San Francisco only intercepted two passes all year and gave up 35 passing touchdowns. It was hard for Sherman to stand out on a 4-12 team with a defense playing so poorly.

He didn’t make the Pro Bowl and wasn’t an All-Pro, so he missed out on $3 million in incentives.

The 2019 season was different. A healthy and rejuvenated 49ers defense made life miserable for quarterbacks, and that allowed Sherman to shine. It helped too that he had an offseason that wasn’t saddled by recovery from his Achilles tear.

Sherman was PFF’s top-graded cornerback of 2019 and allowed just 27 receptions in 15 games. He also came away with three interceptions and his first pick-six since 2013.

His play earned him Pro Bowl and second-team All-Pro honors. That meant big money.

He received a $3 million bonus for those accolades, as well as a $1 million bonus for playing over 90 percent of the 49ers’ total defensive snaps. His base salary for the 2020 season also jumped from $7 million to $8 million. Assuming he’s still on the 49ers’ roster in 2020 — which seems like a foregone conclusion — Sherman will receive at least $29.725 million of his three-year deal and as much as $34.775 million.

That’s not too shabby for a cornerback in his 30s coming off a significant injury. And Sherman went to Twitter to dig up comments from people who didn’t think he’d pull it off. Here’s a sampling:

It was a well-earned victory lap for someone who was heavily criticized nearly two years ago. Ultimately, though, Sherman signed a contract that was perfect for his situation — and not many others.

Most NFL players shouldn’t follow Sherman’s lead

Sherman’s contract was right for him for a few reasons. The fact that he was 30 and coming back from a major injury meant his contract ceiling was limited. But his status as an aging star with several Pro Bowls under his belt provided useful name recognition.

If Sherman excelled in San Francisco, it would be magnified. And that made tying his contract value to Pro Bowl and All-Pro accolades prescient. There was never a chance that Sherman’s success would go unnoticed by fans, the media, and his peers.

That’s not true of all NFL players.

Take Minnesota safety Anthony Harris, for example. He finished the 2019 regular season tied for the NFL lead in interceptions and sits as the league’s highest-graded safety on PFF. And yet, he still hasn’t made a Pro Bowl in five seasons with the Vikings. That’d never happen to Sherman, who is as visible and recognizable as defensive players get in the league.

So unless another NFL player with similar star power suffers a serious injury late in his career, betting big on Pro Bowl and All-Pro nods would probably be foolish. For Sherman though, it was his only way of getting the pay day he knew he could earn, critics be damned.