The 49ers signed a player who didn’t receive a contract offer from a division rival for special teams’ depth, and he might be a real receiving threat. So how did he get here, and what’s his ceiling?
When the 49ers signed Trent Sherfield this offseason, your reaction probably landed somewhere between utter disinterest to mild confusion, which, frankly, makes perfect sense.
An addition to the special teams’ squad in mid-March doesn’t usually move the needle for a fanbase. You’d never think this was someone who’d effectively go by “Textbook Trent” by early September.
However, as the team began to gather for spring practices and training camp, the murmurs started. So, when he caught an 80-yard bomb on Trey Lance’s first drive as a professional athlete, if you’d been paying attention, it shouldn’t have been too big of a shock.
Certainly, not as shocked as Sherfield himself when the restricted free agent wasn’t even offered a contract after three productive years as a gunner for the division rival Arizona Cardinals. However, it’s not the first time the three-year vet’s value was questioned. Sherfield went undrafted out of Vanderbilt and didn’t even garner an invite to the Combine.
The reasoning seems to be that his years with the Commodores flip-flopped between impressive and underwhelming. As a freshman, he barely got on the field, which, in and of itself, was an accomplishment, as he spent the year transitioning from a defensive back to wideout.
That’s right. Like a couple of other guys I’ve covered, Sherfield spent his high school days in Danville, IL by playing on both sides of the ball, specifically lining up as a dangerous dual-threat quarterback. He also found time for varsity basketball and track and field, sprinting in multiple events and winning the state’s triple jump competition.
Do you want a highlight reel of him looking like a man amongst boys? I thought so.
Once acclimated to his new position, Sherfield’s sophomore season took off like a rocket. He became the team’s top target and led the way in every major statistical category. His most dominant outing was against Austin Peay, in which he racked up 16 catches for 240 yards, a school record. His totals got him noticed nationally, landing on the Biletnikoff Award watch list.
During this time, his undefeatable work ethic made an impression not just on the coaching staff, who always praised his dedication to late-night film sessions and early morning workouts, but a particular Vandy alumnus, Jordan Matthews. The converted tight end and Sherfield’s current 49ers teammate pretty much owns every major receiving record in school history and left behind a towering legacy.
He graduated two years before Sherfield arrived on campus but would regularly return to practices. Immediately, the two players hit it off, and Matthews took the young receiver under his wing. The mentor signed up his protégée for a two-person book club, assigning him reading material to exercise his mind as much as his body.
This helped Sheffield mentally prepare him for a slumping junior season that featured a few too many dropped passes. His inconsistent hands kept him from tallying over 5 catches or 50 yards in 11 of the team’s 13 games.
But no coach doubted him or his effort, and Sherfield went to work. Matthews came through again, this time with a pair of Nike training goggles. The specially designed gadget uses strobe lights in the lenses to develop better depth perception and tracking of moving objects.
The space-age tech must’ve helped because he bounced back with a tremendous senior year. His catch consistency improved, leading to a career-best 729 yards on 50 catches with 5 TDs. Not to mention, as a widely-respected team leader, he had been voted a co-captain on offense.
The Cardinals had shown interest when they brought him out for a pre-draft visit and followed up with a contract a few weeks later. However, like any player who goes undrafted, Sherfield represented a long shot to stick on a 53 man roster, especially out of training camp.
Yet that’s exactly what he did when he beat out a couple of higher pedigree players, who started above him on the depth chart and made the team. His inclusion became undeniable after a fumble recovery for a touchdown on a punt block. It clinched his spot.
His nose for the football carried over to regular-season games, as he’s collected three loose balls over his career. Sherfield doesn’t just happen to end up in the right place at the right time. His technique and ability to leverage himself into good positioning to tackle returners or dive on fumbles are exactly what made him so attractive to the 49ers when he was allowed to hit the open market.
Kyle Shanahan singled out Richard Hightower, the special teams’ coordinator, as the one who persistently advocated for the 49ers to snag Sherfield. Preparing two matchups against him for the past three years gave him plenty of tape and time to study the player, and he always came away impressed by his work.
Hightower may or may not have stretched the truth a bit to bolster his pitch that he knew Sherfield could contribute as a receiver. However, when asked about his use of hyperbole, he pointed to front office staff, who actually watched tape to confirm his exaggeration, and similarly liked what they saw.
While everyone felt good about the decision, Sherfield has consistently exceeded any and all expectations from the jump. Hightower was pleased that he immediately asserted himself as one of the most dedicated players on the team and described him as a pro’s pro. Sherfield has already set an example for all the young guys, who’re in the exact position of fighting for a spot just like he was a few years ago.
While it might’ve been safe to assume that Sherfield was a hard worker, no one could have predicted what he’s brought to the offense so far. Unfortunately, he was stuck at the bottom of a pretty loaded WR depth chart in Arizona, and it shows in his production. He caught just 28 balls for 340 yards with 1 TD in his first three seasons.
Upon officially joining the team, Sherfield began to study the notably thick playbook voraciously. Obviously, he wanted to make a good impression in his limited camp appearances and be as prepared as possible given any injuries. So to solidify his knowledge of the play terminology, he’d have his wife call them out for him to repeat back over and over, like a freshman cramming for their first midterm.
The results were instantaneous; even before that first TD against the Chiefs, Sherfield was on the receiving end of a 50-yard training camp shot from Lance captured by team cameras. Twitter was set aflame as fans threw gas on the sparks of experts, who broke the play down in detail.
Got the deep ball on speed dial #49ersCamp pic.twitter.com/KXTjL2YOgv
— San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) August 3, 2021
Not to say it wasn’t exciting to watch Lance throw on the move across his body off his back foot with pinpoint accuracy half a football field away, but it seemed that lost in the kerfuffle was Sherfield burning his man and fully extending to make the play.
With continued practice success and his sprint speed ended up fifth on the NextGen stats list for Week 1, the world truly took notice. It happened again after his big catch kickstarted Lance and the offense for a successful two-minute drill against the Chargers. Two straight weeks, he led all receivers in yards. Not bad for a guy who only had 79 offensive snaps in 2020.
With all that said, I believe his stand-out performance came against the Raiders in the preseason finale. Targeted twice by Jimmy Garappolo, Sherfield hauled them in, making difficult catches look routine. A nice change of pace after the team’s prolonged issues with drops throughout the preseason.
Each required extension, concentration, and body control to complete. Beyond that, they were situationally important. Both went for over 10 yards and first downs, which is more than a little reminiscent of Kendrick Bourne.
The first was a comebacker along the sidelines. Sherfield ran the route perfectly, then aggressively came back to snatch the ball before getting his feet down. The second was on 3rd and 13 in Raiders territory. To keep the drive alive, he slipped into an opening between two defenders and climbed the ladder to secure the catch, right as the Raiders converged on him. He held on, and the 49ers scored a few plays later.
A couple of flashy, big chunk gains will certainly stand out and make the rounds online, but it’s these types of plays that keep the offense rolling and the team winning. It also absolutely puts Sherfield’s name into the ongoing WR3 conversation.
The other receivers who made the final roster are Jalen Hurd, Jauan Jennings, and Mohamed Sanu. Sanu, the savvy elder statesman, who coined the nickname, has been the presumed third wideout. Also, as the resident old guy, you get to give out the nicknames.
Sanu’s experience makes him a desirable fit for the position, but at 32 with an injury history, it would benefit everyone not to overuse him. Perhaps, the best solution will be a timeshare, essentially utilizing him as WR3a and Sherfield as WR3b.
Whichever way it breaks, it seems that Sherfield will be finding his way onto the field with regularity and that the 49ers found another steal to deepen their already potent roster. Shanahan and Lynch have talked extensively about creating a culture, which was a move in that direction. There’s a reason they call him “Textbook Trent,” after all.
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