Ahkello Witherspoon was not the San Francisco 49ers first choice for a cornerback pick in 2017, with the team freely admitting post draft that they considered moving up for another.
In a draft-room dispatch from Peter King, general manager John Lynch said the Niners considered trading up for Kevin King out of Washington. San Francisco instead made a deal to go up and get linebacker Reuben Foster at the bottom of the first round.
Their decision not to trade to get King lends further credence to the argument that sometimes it is the deals you don't make that prove the most important as, after some initial struggles, third-round pick Witherspoon flourished and heads into his sophomore year locked in as a starter with the potential to occupy that role long term.
How has Witherspoon put himself in such a position, and what does he need to work on to ensure he solidifies his place as a starter in an increasingly crowded 49ers secondary? Here were answer those questions with a detailed look at his play in an impressive rookie campaign.
Excellent man coverage
Witherspoon did not produce mind-blowing Combine performance. His 20-yard and 60-yard shuttle times were in the the 59th percentile and 28th percentile respectively for cornerbacks, per Mock Draftable. However, his collegiate tape suggested he had the combination of length, body control and speed to become a player who could hold up on the outside in the Niners' Cover 3 system.
Witherspoon ran a 4.45 40-yard dash at the Combine, but clearly plays much faster on the field. That much is evident on this play against the Arizona Cardinals. Playing off-man coverage against John Brown, comfortably one of the fastest receivers in the NFL, Witherspoon demonstrates extremely impressive downfield speed. He is able to quickly recover the separation Brown and, not biting on the inside sell, displays smooth hip turn as the wideout breaks the route to the outside to gain leverage and put himself in perfect position to make a play on the ball.
Clearly undaunted by being matched up with fast receivers, Witherspoon was also able to hold his own covering Will Fuller in the 49ers' clash with the Houston Texans. He again maintains leverage throughout while staying tight to Fuller and is able to stop on a dime when the Texans speedster unsuccessfully attempts to break back to the football.
But perhaps the outstanding play of Witherspoon's rookie year came in just his third appearance of the season against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Witherspoon showcases brilliant body control to flip his twice seamlessly in succession to combat Mack Hollins faking an intention to push the route downfield and then quickly breaking inside. Carson Wentz, anticipating Hollins being open over the middle, makes an ill-advised throw and Witherspoon gets a great drive on the ball to make the interception and return it to the fringe of the red zone.
That was one of just two interceptions Witherspoon made in his first season, but that number figures to be higher in 2018 if he cleans up a glaring inconsistency.
Inconsistency at the catch point
Witherspoon's 33-inch arms make him an excellent fit for a scheme that relies heavily on long corners, and it was therefore somewhat surprising to see him struggle to make plays at the catch point early in his time with the Niners.
In the rout the 49ers suffered at the hands of the Dallas Cowboys, Witherspoon defended Dez Bryant extremely well but still gave up completions to him through his inability to make plays at the catch point.
First, Witherspoon fails to turn and find the football despite Bryant giving him a clear signal that he is about to try to bring in a pass. Then on the second play, Witherspoon provides another demonstration of his hip fluidity as he defends an in-breaking out but is unable to take advantage of his positioning as he is boxed out by Bryant.
An inability to make a play at the catch point versus the Eagles saw Witherspoon give up a touchdown in a up-and-down performance in Philadelphia. His downfield coverage on Alshon Jeffery is near-perfect, but the former Chicago Bear dominates at the catch point, Witherspoon unable to get a hand in and break up a pass that resulted in a 53-yard score.
Witherspoon was not the first and will not be the last corner to be beaten in such a fashion by Jeffery. However, that play served as a learning curve for Witherspoon, who was able to make strides in that area of his game down the stretch, with his showing against the Jacksonville Jaguars evidence of his progress.
Two plays of his from that game stood out. The first sees him get physical with the receiver to stay in stride, Witherspoon then successfully avoiding getting boxed out and making a play on the ball. On the second, he avoids repeating a mistake from the Dallas game, pinning his receiver to the sideline and then turning his head in unison with the wideout, allowing him to take advantage of a terrible Blake Bortles decision.
By the end of the season, Witherspoon appeared to be turning something that was initially a deficiency into a strength, but the 49ers will still want to see further progress in his play at the catch point, which goes hand in hand with development that is needed in another of his game
Off coverage and bail technique struggles
For a player who obviously has enough speed to excel in the pros, Witherspoon endured a lot of issues in transition from off coverage in 2017 and, rather than being something in which he improved down the stretch, it continued to be a problem throughout 2017.
The two plays below from games with the Seattle Seahawks and the Tennessee Titans are close to identical. Paul Richardson and Eric Decker each run out-breaking routes to the sideline against off coverage from Witherspoon and on each play he is too slow in transition as both receivers make easy catches.
Witherspoon also has a tendency to take a false step backwards when in transition from off, and it cost him on this play from the Seahawks game, leaving him without any chance of eating up the gap to the receiver crossing over the middle, who makes a simple catch to move the chains.
Though Witherspoon consistently looked extremely comfortable changing direction and turning his hips, he did surprisingly have struggles keeping his balance when playing off, slipping and giving up easy completions on two separate plays in the 49ers' win over the Houston Texans.
Those balance problems transferred to snaps on which Witherspoon played bail technique. Against the New York Giants Witherspoon gives up a first down as he loses his footing when the receiver breaks back to the football, though he has what looks a convincing argument for offensive pass interference. On the second play from the season finale with the Los Angeles Rams he stumbles as Mike Thomas accelerates and angles his route to the sideline and is unable to recover, giving up a play that was ruled a reception despite the best efforts of safety Adrian Colbert.
Still, there have been plenty of signs that transitioning from off coverage is a problem Witherspoon can fix, the most notable coming in the loss to the Seahawks that preceded the 49ers' 5-0 finish to the 2017 season, with this quite remarkable display of recovery speed enabling him to eat up the separation Richardson has as he curves the route back towards the middle and deflect the ball to prevent a touchdown.
Witherspoon made a similar, albeit much less spectacular play against the Rams that should have provided encouragement to the Niners over Witherspoon's ability to successfully defend from off coverage on a consistent basis and make plays at the catch point regularly. Though he hesitates in reacting to tight end Gerald Everett's break, on this occasion there is no backwards step and Witherspoon closes extremely quickly to knock the ball out of his grasp.
Improvements in off coverage should be the top priority for the 49ers when it comes to Witherspoon's development. However, given how he has transformed his run defense, previously seen as one of Witherspoon's biggest issues, they can afford to very confident in him turning around this deficiency.
Rapidly improved run defense
Poor tackling and his overall sub-optimal play defending the run was a significant knock on Witherspoon going into the 2017 draft. Yet once he found his footing with the 49ers, it soon became a non-issue.
In what is a testament to defensive coordinator Robert Saleh and his staff, Witherspoon has been transformed as a run defender with San Francisco, his closing speed and a desire to attack downhill coming to the fore.
This tackle for loss against the Cardinals was the standout run defense play of Witherspoon's rookie year. He is in the backfield in a blink and, though the technique is lacking, is able to upend the ball carrier at speed behind the line of scrimmage.
Tackling in the open field has not been a concern to last long into Witherspoon's pro career. He showed an ability to consistently wrap up ball-carriers after the catch in 2017 and forced his first fumble in Week 17, demonstrating the wherewithal to punch the ball from Pharoah Cooper after he had sidestepped Foster.
Run defense has never been seen as a priority for corners. However, in an NFL where nickel is now the base defense, having corners who can tackle well is growing ever more important.
Witherspoon has that string to his bow and has quickly proven he has the skill set to excel as an outside corner for the 49ers. There are flaws in his game in need of ironing out, but Witherspoon is a player who has shown he can learn from his mistakes and is improve. Now playing in a defensive backs room that includes the veteran presence of Richard Sherman, he is in the perfect position to continue to grow and thrive as a starter.
The presence of Witherspoon as an alternative stopped the 49ers from making a trade up to get King and, by having faith in him and their board, the Niners look to have unearthed a jewel at one of the most important positions in football.
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