SANTA CLARA — Week 1 probably created as many questions as it answered for the 49ers.
Can Kyle Shanahan find a backfield combination to compensate for the loss of Jerick McKinnon? Can anyone beyond DeForest Buckner rush the passer? Can the 49ers afford to send Fred Warner to the bench when Reuben Foster returns from his two-game suspension? Is Jimmy G all that?
But it did answer at least one question, definitively and resoundingly. Is Richard Sherman still a top-tier NFL cornerback? Yes, he is, if we’re using his performance against the Vikings as our guide.
This outcome was not a slam dunk. Not by a long shot. Sherman is a four-time Pro Bowler, one of the few NFL defenders who is respected equally for his physical prowess and his mental agility. But he is 30 years old and coming off of major surgery and rehab for a torn Achilles’ tendon.
Sherman hadn’t played meaningful football since Nov. 9. He missed the final seven games of 2017 with Seattle, and an Achilles’ tear is no joke. It’s a diagnosis that has wrecked NFL careers before, especially for guys playing speed positions.
And while 30 doesn’t sound like a big number, it is frequently the sell-by date for NFL cornerbacks. I think of Nnamdi Asomugha, drafted by the Raiders in 2003. For three seasons, 2006-08, Asomugha was the best corner I ever covered on a regular basis. He was close to flawless, in fact. But he started to get banged up, and flaws emerged in his coverage even as his fame grew. (There’s always a lag in the NFL, unless you play an offensive skill position.) Asomugha was 30 when he signed a huge free-agent contract with the Eagles, and he was never again an elite cover man.
This summer, there were signs that Sherman could be on a similar downward arc. On July 29, after Sherman’s first padded practice with the 49ers, NBC Sports Bay Area’s Matt Maiocco posted video of two telling plays. On the first, San Francisco wide receiver Marquise Goodwin torched Sherman on a deep route. On the second, Sherman was forced to grab the jersey of Aldrick Robinson when he was beaten again.
These were mere misdemeanors. These guys are fast, and Sherman was just getting back into playing shape. But it helped to form public opinion of Richard Sherman on the wrong side of 30.
Before practice Thursday, I asked a couple of Sherman’s teammates in the secondary if they had harbored any doubts about the veteran’s ability to turn back the clock.
“No, just because there wasn’t any lack of confidence in himself,” right cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon said. “It was just him emitting that confidence throughout camp. Through some of the setbacks or whatever, he just remained the same.”
“Nah,” backup Jimmie Ward said. “He knows the system, he plays in the system. He has great technique. So I don’t feel like you need to like overachieve on the field if you know your defense and you trust your defense. He knows where everyone’s at on the field, and he trusts his instincts.”
Confidence and a strong mental grasp of the defensive system don’t seem like great indicators of success to me. It turns out these guys knew what they were talking about.