Finding the Right Building Blocks: Can Witherspoon Develop Into a Shutdown Cornerback?

As the season came to a close last year, a lot of John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan’s drafted players began to blossom. Drafted in the third round of the 2017 draft (#66 overall), Ahkello Witherspoon was a highly regarded cornerback out of University of Colorado, nhaving led the nation in passes broken up (13) in 2016 while dropping off some in 2017. Interestingly enough, his player comparison was none other than his current mentor and teammate, Richard Sherman. Witherspoon took over as the starting cornerback towards the end of last season and played pretty well down the stretch. Coming into 2018, he was expected to take that next step as a second-year cornerback in the NFL. Not only that, but he was being mentored by the newest 49er, who just so happened to be his player comp and one of the best to ever play the position.

Ahkello Witherspoon’s development was a big key for the growth of the 49ers defense this season. With Richard Sherman proving through the first couple games to be the same guy he once was, Witherspoon started to be exposed over and over again, as 49er fans began to wonder if he’ll ever become a shutdown cornerback. In Week 2, versus the Lions, Matthew Stafford threw to Witherspoon’s side of the field twelve times, completing eight passes for 99 yards. Later on the following week, Kyle Shanahan said Witherspoon was dealing with an ankle injury in Week 2 . Benched for the start of the Chiefs game due to the injury, he eventually came in to play some, and still seemed to struggle at times.

This begs the question: what will the 49ers get out of Witherspoon this season and moving forward? Coming out of college, Ahkello was scouted as a cornerback who can break up plays with his long arms, while sporting the fifth-best completion percentage in the nation. One thing that he lacks that has been brought up while discussing him is his lack of physicality. Coming out of college, he was known for missing tackles and being outmuscled by receivers, something his mentor Richard Sherman was not known for. Comparing the two, they’re very similar in many ways. Bother cornerbacks are 6’3” with arm lengths over 30 inches, with Witherspoon having longer arms than Sherman. What they actually differ in favors Witherspoon. Coming out of college, Sherman was known as having stiff hips and lacking speed. Witherspoon’s scouting report raves about his quick hips and exceptional speed and athleticism. Of course, these scouting reports aren’t always accurate, because Sherman’s report had him labeled as nothing more than a backup, depth cornerback on an NFL team. What should give 49er fans hope is that Witherspoon has natural ability that even Sherman wasn’t known for.

To answer the question of whether Ahkello Witherspoon can develop into a shutdown cornerback - it’s fair to say that he could, but we still need to see more development from him this season. Witherspoon is still very young and has more developing to do, but with lots of healthy playing time and learning from his mentor, he could overcome some of the things he’s tagged with. His scouting report out of college shows he has the makings of a tall, long-armed, shutdown cornerback who is patient and times his jumps as well as anyone. Luckily for his progression, the knocks on him are all aspects that can be improved upon and changed altogether. Already putting on more muscle, his overall strength and tackling can be improved upon throughout the year and for years to come. On top of that, he has a mentor in Sherman who had to overcome most of his shortcomings to prove himself. Looking ahead to the rest of the season, hopefully we’ll get to see a healthy Ahkello Witherspoon grow and develop in 2018. Playing time and experience and learning from one of the best will be huge for a young cornerback to fast track his way to becoming a star, but only time will tell as Witherspoon still has some developing to do on the field, but also physically and mentally.

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