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Ahkello Witherspoon’s sophomore 2018 season was a pretty big disappointment. After spending a third-round draft pick on him, head coach Kyle Shanahan and defensive coordinator Robert Saleh expected him to step in and be a top-flight cornerback. As evident with the team not drafting a cornerback in the draft for the first time in years, the team went into the season expecting the same thing this season, even if they hedged their bet by signing Jason Verrett to a one-year prove-it deal.
During the first three weeks of the regular season, Witherspoon showed the coaches and his teammates that he can not only be one of the best cornerbacks on the team, but can perform as one of the top cornerbacks in the league.
Isn’t it amazing what a pass rush can do?
Witherspoon started putting it all together down the stretch in 2018, and over the first three games of 2019 Witherspoon graded out with an overall coverage grade of 79.3 by Pro Football Focus, insane numbers for a player who many fans (outside of super fan Eric Crocker) were calling for to be replaced. His numbers did decrease week to week, starting out with a Week 1 PFF grade of 80.8 overall and 81.7 coverage grade and dropping to 61.8 and 60.1 respectively.
Up until Week 3, the 49ers had been lucky enough to not lose any of their defensive starters to injury, but with Witherspoon’s sprained ankle holding him out for at least three games after the bye, that luck has ended.
There are two players that the Niners have vying for the newly open starting position: Verrett and Emmanuel Moseley. Verrett got the first shot on Sunday when Witherspoon went down, but he only lasted two plays. He was called on a defensive pass interference penalty on his first play, and then was beat on a long touchdown by Diontae Johnson on the second play. Rusty doesn’t even begin to explain a player who hasn’t played any meaningful snaps in a meaningful NFL game since 2017. His first two snaps won’t necessarily dictate what would happen with two weeks to prepare for an opponent, but it definitely isn’t a positive start.
Shanahan told reporters that Moseley, a second-year player is the current favorite to start in place of Witherspoon. Moseley has looked good in preseason action, but he spent the end of last season battling injuries. He does not have the experience (played in one game his rookie season), nor does he have the length the 49ers have shown to covet at the outside CB positions. Does that mean that a 5’11” cornerback can’t thrive in the 49ers defense? No, not exactly, but both Moseley and Verrett are on the shorter side of what NFL teams allow CBs to be.
There is also a third option on the roster that some fans are talking about. Jack-of-all-trades defensive back Jimmie Ward could take on that outside CB spot for a few weeks. Ward has started there before, although his numbers haven’t been great, and with Richard Sherman’s presence directing more passing traffic towards Ward’s side of the field, it would seem wise for the team to test out the other two options first. Then you also have Ward’s seeming inability to stay healthy and on the field.
Looking directly at the elephant in the room, the 49ers could always trade away several first-round draft picks for Jalen Ramsey, who would immediately make Sherman a CB2. But giving up multiple first-round picks and receiving the $15 million per year (at minimum) contract just doesn’t sound like something general manager John Lynch would do.
So where does this leave the 49ers defense? Not in the most ideal situation. With the options they have, all they can do is coach up Verrett and Moseley, put them in the best possible situations, and hope that the players around them can perform. Verrett was a Pro Bowl caliber player early in his career, and if he can regain that for the 49ers, the defense should not miss a beat.
If he or Moseley cannot fill that role, the defense will have to continue -- if not improve -- their destructive pass rush ways. At the top or near the top in every pass rushing statistic, the front seven has made life a little bit easier on the secondary, but Mason Rudolph and the Steelers did show a weakness in the team’s defense, completing short crossing routes for long gains. The loss of Witherspoon will probably drop the team from a top-five defense, but won’t have the team free falling with the inability to defend the pass. The team has shown that this is a collection of very athletic, though young players.
With two of the better coverage linebackers in the league (Fred Warner Jr. and Kwon Alexander) playing in the back side of that front seven, the 49ers may be able to scheme some more help to whoever mans the starting position opposite Sherman. That could mean a safety playing over the top more often with one or both of the LBs picking up the tight end or a split-wide running back.
Going against Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry in their first game out isn’t ideal either, but at least they have two weeks to prepare for them.
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