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49ers analysis: What to do with Richard Sherman

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Should the 49ers give Richard Sherman the Ronnie Lott treatment?

Lott was the best defensive back of his generation and perhaps ever. But in March of 1991 — 29 years ago — the 49ers chose not to re-sign him. Chose to let him leave during free agency. He was 31 years old and had just made the All-Pro team. But at the time, the 49ers’ motto was to release a player a year too soon rather than a year too late, so they let Lott sign with the Raiders.

Sherman will turn 32 on March 30. He’s still a good cornerback — he made the Pro Bowl last season. But he’s getting old, and he’s expensive, and cutting him would roughly double the 49ers’ cap space. They currently have less than $13 million to spend.

The 1991 49ers probably would have cut 32-year-old Sherman. Should the current 49ers cut him or keep him? Let’s examine both possibilities.

Why the 49ers should keep Sherman: He just had a terrific season. He intercepted three passes and broke up 11 more, and opposing quarterbacks at times seemed scared to even look in his direction. For most of the season, Sherman still commanded the respect and fear from opponents that he commanded during his prime.

Sherman is a football genius. And he’s only getting smarter. He probably is the smartest cornerback of all time — that’s why he’s so good in zone coverage. He can sit back, watch the quarterback and anticipate where the ball will go. Sherman has seen everything an offense can throw at him.

And he was the emotional leader and voice of the 49ers last season. He was the player with the Super Bowl ring who kept the rest of the team on track and confident through a long, grueling season. He was the big brother, although his teammates called him “Uncle Sherm.” The 49ers were quite young. To them, Sherman was an uncle. They needed his guidance.

Why the 49ers should cut Sherman: They don’t need his guidance anymore. They made the Super Bowl. They know what it takes to get there. Sherman doesn’t have to remind them.

And sure, Sherman played well last season. But all the 49ers’ cornerbacks played well. Emmanuel Moseley gave up a 44.7 completion percentage, Ahkello Witherspoon gave up a 52.1 completion percentage and Sherman gave up a 59.2 completion percentage.

They all benefited from the NFL’s best four-man pass rush, because they didn’t have to cover receivers for long stretches of time. Quarterbacks had to throw the ball quickly or get crushed.

And despite the 49ers’ dominant pass rush, Sherman gave up two long catches in the playoffs — a 65-yarder to Packers wide receiver Davante Adams in the NFC championship game and a 38-yarder to Sammy Watkins in the Super Bowl. Watkins’ catch was one of the biggest plays of the Chiefs’ fourth-quarter comeback win.

Sherman looked slow trying to chase after Watkins and Adams in man-to-man coverage. Teams probably will attack Sherman more aggressively next season after watching him labor to run in the Super Bowl.

Sherman will be a free agent in 2021, so 2020 probably will be his final season with the 49ers. He’s scheduled to earn roughly $14 million next season. Cutting him before April 1 would save the 49ers about $13 million and allow them to re-sign younger defensive players such as Arik Armstead, Ronald Blair and Jimmie Ward.

Would it be smart to lose all three of those players or any of those players just to keep Sherman one more season?

Final answer: Ideally, the 49ers should keep Sherman. And if cap space weren’t an issue, they almost certainly would keep him.

But cap space is an issue for the 49ers, a big issue. And if they don’t get creative with their payroll, they could lose young players who have futures beyond next season. The 49ers can’t let that happen.

The 49ers should cut or trade Sherman, the older player, and keep the younger ones. That’s what the 1991 49ers would do. And they knew what they were doing.

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