SANTA CLARA — Jason Verrett remembers feeling like someone kicked his leg out from under him.
During a conditioning test on the first day of Los Angeles Chargers training camp, Verrett — a former first-round pick who had already dealt with myriad injuries over his first three years in the NFL — felt his leg buckle during the final turn towards the finish line, and blacked out.
Verrett had torn his Achilles in what he called a freak accident. After an ACL tear, along with hamstring and shoulder issues, had limited him to just 24 games over three seasons, he missed all of 2018. On Thursday, just the second day of free agency, Verrett returned home to the Bay Area, and despite his injury history, was signed to a one-year, $3.6 million deal by the San Francisco 49ers.
“I was just blessed to have an opportunity,” Verrett said. “All the things that I’ve been through, all you can ask for is an opportunity. The 49ers came on board, and I’m happy I took the visit here.
After a college shoulder injury flared up and forced him to miss most of his rookie year, in 2015, Verrett played 14 games and was named as a Pro Bowl replacement for Darrelle Revis. Despite missing two games with a foot injury, he made 47 combined tackles and picked off three passes.
In 2016, he partially tore his ACL, played through it, and then fully tore it, limiting him to four games. In 2017, he injured his knee and played in just one game.
Before training camp in July of 2018, Verrett told the NFL Network that he’d felt the best he had in his whole life. Then, on the first day of camp, he ruptured his Achilles.
“It’s been tough, man,” Verrett said. “Smile now, cry later type of thing for me. There were a lot of dark moments dealing with the injury, but I came out the tunnel, and I’m ready to get things rolling.”
Verrett’s contract is a show-me deal. It’s an opportunity. For a team that saw eight defensive backs go down with injury last season, depth is a necessity.
“I know I’m definitely a top corner in this league when I’m healthy. I’ve just got to prove it. The 49ers gave me the opportunity to do that, and that’s my plan, to do it,” Verrett said.
Despite his injury history, Verrett did have multiple suitors. He was scheduled to visit Houston and Kansas City later this week and next week, but coming home just felt right.
“The culture here, the vibe here, the way the coaching staff is, the locker room, the facility, everything, top to bottom, is a class act,” Verrett said.
When Verrett — who took a physical before signing his deal — walked onto the turf at Levi’s Stadium, the video boards read: “Welcome Home.” They were props, essentially, for the main attractions on the day: Inside linebacker signee Kwon Alexander and defensive end Dee Ford, acquired in a trade (Antone Exum Jr. and Jimmie Ward also both agreed to terms on Thursday, according to a league source, but were not in town to sign their deals). That didn’t make the sentiment any less welcome for Verrett. His first thought: “Crazy.”
“It was definitely a surreal moment, man, a humbling moment,” Verrett said. “Being a Bay Area kid, a native kid, being able to play for a team in the Bay, man, it’s special.”
Verrett grew up in Fairfield, a two-sport star at Angelo Rodriguez High School (football and 100m in track), and went to games at both the Oakland Coliseum and Candlestick Park.
“I was a Raiders fan growing up, so I ain’t really rock with the 49ers too much,” Verrett admitted, when pressed on Thursday. “Now I’m a Niner.”
After receiving no scholarship offers, he opted to go to Santa Rosa College for a year, where he was named all-conference in 2010. He signed with TCU in 2011, and racked up 58 tackles in his first season. The next year, he tallied 63 stops, and a team-leading six interceptions, earning All-Big 12 honors and an All-American nod from Sports Illustrated. At the NFL Combine, he finished second among all defensive backs in the 40-yard dash, with a 4.38.
At his Pro Day, he performed 19 reps with a torn labrum in his shoulder, an injury he sustained during the season and had fixed on March 17, 2014.
After being picked No. 25 overall by the San Diego Chargers, injuries piled up. In his rookie season, he tore his labrum in three places diving for a pass, tore his rotator cuff and injured his hamstring.
We’s been healthy, Verrett has shown ability in San Francisco’s system, one used by the Seattle Seahawks and the Chargers, thanks to defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, who was the defensive coordinator in Seattle when current 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh was a defensive quality control coach.
During his time with the Chargers, Verrett watched a lot of Seahawks tape, starring current 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman.
“That was a lot of film, that [Bradley] presented to us, was Sherman,” Verrett said. “Being able to be a teammate of him, I’m definitely going to pick his brain and learn more about the scheme.”
Verrett will play outside, just as he did with San Diego/Los Angeles, and in college.
As for the health situation, Verrett said his body feels good, and he’s on track with his recovery. He has not yet spoken with Sherman, who suffered a similar injury, and is still rehabbing down in Orange County.
“I definitely want to pick his brain, and figure out the things that he did, and follow those footsteps,” Verrett said.