Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann
Unpopular opinion, 49ers edition: Ahkello Witherspoon didn’t play that bad last year
Much has been made of the 49ers’ poor coverage rankings in 2018. The secondary mustered a measly two interceptions, none by a cornerback, had eight different safety combinations in 16 games, and were generally regarded as the weak link in the 49ers’ defense. Coupled with an anemic pass rush, it’s no wonder that the cornerbacks were often left out to dry during the season.
After an offseason “cornerback summit” hosted by Richard Sherman, the coaching staff envisioned Witherspoon to build on a strong rookie campaign and solidify himself as the corner opposite Sherman for the 2018 season. Instead, for the early part of the season, Witherspoon struggled. After a disastrous Week 2 game versus the Lions, in which he surrendered eight receptions for 99 yards and two touchdowns, he was shuffled in and out of the lineup while battling a recurring ankle injury. He eventually found the form from his rookie season, allowing only 11 catches for 142 yards and zero touchdowns over his last five games before suffering a season-ending knee injury in the Week 15 win against the Seahawks.
Last offseason, the front office brought in Tarvarius Moore and D.J. Reed through the 2018 draft, and so far this offseason, former Charger Jason Verrett was added for competition at the cornerback position. Although Reed played some free safety this year after injuries to starter Adrian Colbert and backup Jimmie Ward, he’s being projected as the replacement to current nickel-cornerback K’Waun Williams.
With the recent additions and the fact that the team has only six draft picks and multiple other holes to fill, does this mean that the 49ers should stay away from cornerbacks in this draft? The simple answer is no. Aside from Sherman, who is entering his age 31 season, no cornerback on the roster has shown the consistency in their play that would instill confidence in the coaching staff that they have found their long-term answer.
With the fundamental shift in the NFL, coverage players are becoming more valuable to a defense than pass rushers. To drive that point home you don’t have to look any further then the Kansas City Chiefs. While boasting a front that included Dee Ford, Justin Houston, and Chris Jones, KC still finished 31st overall in yards allowed, due in large part to the fact that their secondary couldn’t cover anyone. Out went Ford and Houston, and in came Bashaud Breeland and Tyrann Mathieu to shore up their secondary.
While this draft class isn’t as top-heavy as in previous years, it is still a deep pool of talented players. The second pick would be too high to take anyone in this group, but if a trade down scenario were to play out, someone like Deandre Baker from the University of Georgia or Greedy Williams out of LSU could be a possibility. In later rounds players like JMU’s Jimmy Moreland, who the team got a first-hand look at while coaching the Senior Bowl, or Justin Layne from Michigan State might catch the coaching staff’s eye.
With an already improved pass rush, it’s time for the 49ers to take a hard look at the secondary and decide if they want to be on the forefront of the new NFL or lag behind while the game evolves.
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