Niners Live has to address what many Faithful have already thought of; who’s the biggest defensive draft disappointment of 2017? None other than the third-round draft pick out of the University of Colorado defensive back Ahkello Witherspoon himself.
How we actually got here
First of all, were there any other defensive third-round picks coming into camp, and the season, in the last decade that had more hype to their name than Witherspoon? Take a minute to let that register for a second. He was drafted for his elite measurables/intangibles and athleticism, with his 6-foot-3 frame and 33-inch arms, he was compared by many to the next Richard Sherman of the Seattle Seahawks per Pro Football Focus, General Manager John Lynch, head coach Kyle Shanahan and new defensive coordinator Robert Saleh.
Who is Ahkello Witherspoon, 6’3 198 lbs., University of Colorado?
What he does well per his draft scouting report:
Witherspoon has a great combination of size, speed, and instincts. He also maintains fluid hip movement when opening hips and changing direction to follow receivers. He can flat out ball as seen here. This kid can play, and leads his class in pass defenses. Even though he needs to learn to be more physical to succeed in the NFL, he has plenty of room to grow. And while his interception numbers aren’t indicative of his skill set, he is always around the ball and in position to make a play.
However, in pre-season, you saw him being challenged and taken advantage of in coverage at will causing several defensive penalties and big plays that were given up.
The concerns coming out of college
According to NFL.com, “Has a gangly frame that is all arms and legs. Will have to add more functional strength to compete against NFL physicality. Keeps weight too far back in his backpedal. Technique somewhat raw and still needs refining. For all his ball skills, ended up with just three interceptions in 143 targets. Had some balance and footwork issues when matching receivers through route breaks. The tape of his run support is not for the weak. Almost always in a state of retreat when run heads his way. Unwilling to step downhill and stick his nose in to help contain the edge. Passivity against the run cost his team two touchdowns against Michigan” (NFL.com).
Some of those concerns traveled right into camp and ESPN’s Nick Wagoner offered his break down of the play between running back Carlos Hyde and Witherspoon.
As [Hyde] approached the goal line, Witherspoon came up in run support only for Hyde to lower his shoulder and trample Witherspoon on his way into the end zone. After practice, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said he thought Hyde caught Witherspoon off guard and said the play wasn’t a big deal. Regardless, it’s an early clue to Witherspoon, who had questions about his physicality entering the league in regards to what life is like in the NFL.
Recently, DC Robert Saleh had this to say about Witherspoon:
“He’s been working his tail off. His technique’s been improving every single week. And the way he’s been operating – and the way he’s been going since OTAs, really – and progressing, there’s no doubt he’s going to end up on the field sooner than later. There’s no doubt.” (Via Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee).
Interesting to note: Lynch said Witherspoon has some fundamental technique issues he needs to work on before he can start to be incorporated into the defense and playing time, but he see’s big potential and things from him in the near future (via NBCSports.com).
Why Ahkello Witherspoon has been the Biggest Defensive Draft Disappointment
Based on the hype and expectations surrounding the third round pick as aforementioned, and also expecting to challenge for a starting position and playing time, the fact that Witherspoon has been inactive for the first quarter of the season is a major disappointment. To make matters worse, the 49ers promoted defensive back Asa Jackson over Witherspoon for added depth in the defensive backfield, but more importantly, on special teams where Jackson recently played 66% of his snaps against Arizona (via the team’s website).
One can only speculate or put the obvious pieces together here, but Witherspoon’s lack of physicality, strength, and desire to be physical at the point of attack in the run game, and tackling in general, makes him a liability on defense and on special teams and quite frankly, Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles can see it too, no pun intended, of course.
A stat you should know: The 49ers’ pass defense is rank 24th giving up 240 yards a game through the air with only two interceptions (one) coming from only one member of the secondary safety Jaquiski Tartt (via ESPN.com). It should be also noted that Witherspoon is the only rookie from the 2017 draft class that’s been a healthy inactive scratch within the first four games of the season.
Cornerback’s Dontae Johnson and Rashard Robinson both share one of the lowest starting (Pro Football Focus Grades) in the NFL by two starting corners. Johnson grades out at 56.1 overall, 63.2 pass coverage and 33.5 in run defense. Robinson grades out at 36.2 overall, 36.5 pass coverage and 87.2 in run defense. Robinson’s run grade is amongst the highest in the NFL and base on that alone it’s hard to take him off the field for Witherspoon or Johnson who’s the better of the two in coverage.
Curveball alert: Could Witherspoon be playing by default at some point A.K.A “SOONER THAN LATER” base on the 49ers could soon be mathematically eliminated from the playoffs within the next five or six games potentially? And be forced to play all their younger players anyway? To be continued……Wait, are your eyes wide open?
Please join us again soon on Niners Live, the home of the faithful fan and analyst from an objective/analytical lens, of course.
Welcome to Lyftlive.com.
All records, statistics, and accolades are courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com, Pro Football Focus, 49ers.com, ESPN.com, NFL.com, Foxsports.com, unless otherwise indicated. Author, Content Creator, Editor, Sequoia Sims .