Breaking Down How Richard Sherman Became the Best Corner in the NFL

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Breaking Down How Richard Sherman Became the Best Corner in the NFL
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman wasn't always viewed as the best cornerback in football. At first, he wasn't even a cornerback.

Prior to 2009, the brash and confident corner was a wide receiver at Stanford University. From 2006 to 2008, he was the leading receiver for the Cardinal before being sidelined with a knee injury four games into his junior year. He applied for a medical redshirt that year and was granted it, giving him a year to rehab and make a surprising transition to cornerback in the spring of 2009.

In his final two years at Stanford, he had six interceptions as part of a ferocious pattern-reading defense that current San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio employed.

Sherman played a lot of off-man and soft zone coverage. Both of these coverages benefited the 6'3", 195-pound defender because they allowed him to track and attack the football like he'd done at the receiver position. However, his lack of proper technique, disadvantageous stature and questionable quickness was a concern for NFL personnel men going into the 2011 NFL draft, leading to him being selected in the fifth round.

In an interview with Yahoo!'s Mike Silver, Sherman revealed that he was happy to be drafted but also furious that he went so late.

Some of those guys who got drafted [ahead of me], I was like, 'Wow, this is ridiculous.' I thought, 'What's the point of playing good ball if it doesn't matter?' By the time the fifth round rolled around, the damage was done. I was like, 'When I get to the NFL, I'm gonna destroy the league, as soon as they give me the chance.' And that's what I've been doing ever since.

During the first seven weeks of his rookie season with the Seahawks, his stat sheet was nondescript. Zero starts and zero interceptions.

The next 10 were definitely filled, though.

Sherman became the starter for the Seahawks in Week 8 and immediately took off, intercepting quarterback Andy Dalton once and deflecting three other passes. Four weeks later, he registered another interception, this time against the Washington Redskins, before adding two more in Weeks 15 and 17.

The next year, his second, he was a full-time starter and made the most of it. He logged eight interceptions, 24 pass deflections, added three forced fumbles and was widely regarded as the NFL's top cornerback.

Two big reasons why he's become the best is because of his technique and ball skills. Both of these were illustrated against the New England Patriots in Week 6.

Lined up in the slot, Sherman rolled up to the line of scrimmage in press-man coverage against Deion Branch.

The Patriots veteran receiver has slowed down since his Super Bowl years, but he still has crafty technique and quick feet, which should have been a problem for the Seahawks defender according to scouts.

It wasn't.

When Branch released off the line of scrimmage and took quick steps to his right, Sherman didn't panic. He subtly slid his feet, bent his knees to sink his pads and kept his hips straight. In most cases, young cornerbacks in this situation open their hips up too quickly and, consequently, are prone to double moves.

Now working downfield, Sherman stayed close to Branch and looked back for the football. Quarterback Tom Brady was an excellent passer in these kinds of situations, but it was going to be difficult for him to get the ball over the top of the tall cornerback. He tried anyways and paid for it.

Sherman tracked the football and raised up, hauling it in for his only interception of the game.

Even though the cornerback doesn't spend the majority of his snaps in the slot, it was impressive that he was able to do so here, especially against a smaller and quicker receiver. His length helped cover ground and made it difficult for Brady to complete the pass.

When he's lined up outside, his natural spot, he's even better. Sherman shows a great understanding of technique, his defense and how the offense attacks it, as seen against the St. Louis Rams in Week 17.

With the ball on the 29-yard line and the Rams driving, Sherman was faced with a cornerback's worst nightmare: multiple vertical routes. The Rams lined up in their Trips Right formation, featuring three receivers to the right, and ran a four verticals concept from it.

Three of the verticals would come from the right side, where Sherman was dropping back into coverage as a deep third defender in Cover 3.

A seam route by the No. 3 receiver occupied the safety in the middle of the field that was supposed to help Sherman cover the outside and slot receivers. This meant he was left to defend both of them.

Sherman kept his distance from the slot but also didn't lean too far to the outside where the receiver was running a clear-out route.

From the Rams' perspective, the goal was to keep him outside and hit the slot receiver just outside the right hash. This was made difficult because Sherman was watching quarterback Sam Bradford the entire way and essentially baiting him into making the throw.

As he continued to run downfield, Sherman inched closer to the slot receiver before finally focusing on him when Bradford threw the pass.

Tracking the football as it came down, he jumped in front of the route and intercepted it in the end zone. Sherman caught his eighth interception of the season and helped propel his team into the playoffs.

Sherman's been making big plays ever since he got his first career start in Week 8 of his rookie season. It's unlikely that he'll stop now, as he's an ascending talent and still learning his position despite his stunning early success. A big factor has been his past experience of playing wide receiver and a very complex defense under Vic Fangio.

He's one of the league's best in tracking the football and for right now, one of the league's best at playing cornerback. However, as he told Silver, he plans on being the best ever (via Yahoo.com).

I want to be the best, period. A lot of people don't think it's possible, because how could a fifth-rounder be the best of all time? But that's what I want to be. Where you get drafted is such a big deal in the league, respect-wise, and that's why it still frustrates me.

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