49ers: Fans should be Optimistic, but Patient, with Rookie Cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon

Niners Live presents a post-draft assessment of the 3rd round (number 66 overall) cornerback selection and how he would fit in the 4-3 single high safety high scheme of Robert Saleh.


The returning talent at cornerback:

The 49ers have some decent talent at cornerback (highlighted by Rashard Robinson), but the addition of a big game rookie cornerback with good size via the draft with potential to compete for a starting spot wouldn’t hurt. I mention good size, because if you look around the league (and even in the NFC West Division) over recent years, cornerbacks are a good 6’1-6’3 with good speed, coverage and ball skills. Luckily for the 49ers, there are plenty of rookies in the draft this year that fit this bill. Allow me to briefly discuss three 6’2″ or taller, physical, ball-hawking rookies that would be great additions if available in the 3rd round for the 49ers.

Contrary to popular belief, and contrary to what the numbers reflect (ranked last in team defense in 2016), the 49ers are above average in terms of talent in the secondary, and that’s not as bad as it seems. Yes, I said that, but hear me out. Pressure bursts pipes, and lack of consistent and formidable quarterback pressure has created a much more daunting task for the secondary when attempting to play/maintain the tight and disciplined coverage necessary to prevent opposing offenses from finding open players and creating big plays for chunk yardage and touchdowns.

With increased production from the newly revamped front seven via hurries, sacks, and keeping linebackers clean (occupying offensive lineman before they get upfield to the linebackers), providing ample opportunity for the defensive line to produce pressure, the secondary should also see increased production in the 2017 season. Though there is no standout pass-rusher for the 49ers, the additions of newly drafted rookies Solomon Thomas and Reuben Foster should provide an instant boost to the 49ers pass rush and ability to create turnovers.

Other names in the 49ers’ secondary that should benefit from the much improved (via 2017 NFL draft) pass rush are as follows: Jimmie Ward (heading to free safety)Keith ReaserWill Redmond, and Dontae Johnson just to name a few. The aforementioned players should be able to produce moving forward in either man to man, off man, or in zone coverage with sufficient quarterback pressure.

Who is Ahkello Witherspoon, 6’3 198 lbs., University of Colorado?

What he does well:

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.

How does John Lynch feel about Witherspoon?

Concerns/area of improvement:

Let’s get right to it. One of the more important roles and responsibilities of an NFL cornerback is tackling and being a contributor in stopping the run. Tackling is especially important in the 49ers own division, the NFC West, with running backs like David Johnson (Arizona Cardinals), Todd Gurley (Los Angeles Rams) and Eddie Lacy (Seattle Seahawks) attempting to turn the corner with a full head of steam bent on running through whomever is in their way. Yeah, in the NFC West alone, tackling is a must. There is no room, nor tolerance, for timid tackling. That’s the fastest way to get embarrassed and benched. That’s unacceptable! I say that to say this? As good as Witherspoon is in coverage, it’s been reported that he is not a willing tackler, or lacks the will to want to tackle, and he is also said to be a liability in run support. Not good at all, and that’s a problem.

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. 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).

I’ll leave you with this:

Though Witherspoon has great ball skills and is good in coverage, his reluctance to tackle is a red flag. However, if anyone can correct his issues in the tackling department, it’s former DB/Safety and future Hall of Famer John Lynch. The 49ers picked Witherspoon in the 3rd round 66th pick, his former teammate Chidobe Awuzie was selected in the in the 2nd 60th pick. And in order for the 49ers to have picked Awuzie themselves, they would have had to trade up six spots (which they didn’t do). The trade up would have been worth it for the 49ers to select the best cornerback in the Colorado secondary. Not taking anything from Witherspoon, because he’s a great talent, but Awuzie is aggressive and has no fear when it comes to the tackle. More importantly he isn’t scared to tackle, unlike the opposite scouting report on Witherspoon.

It is unfortunate that Witherspoon has a reputation of shying away from tackling. The NFL comparison for Witherspoon is Richard Sherman. I’m not a fan of Sherman, per say, but I am, indeed, a fan of good football and being dominant at your position. Sherman tackles with the best of them and has no problem or hesitation making plays in run support. If Witherspoon has hopes of living up to this comparison, his tackling and toughness alike will have to improve significantly. It’ll take some work from the 49ers staff and Witherspoon, as well, but I’m optimistic that he’ll get it done. Come into camp ready to work young man. GO NINERS!!!!!!

As always, keep your eyes wide open, 49er fans. Niners Live will be watching with you. #eyeswideopen and often imitated but never duplicated… Go Niners.

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All records, statistics, and accolades are courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com, Pro Football Focus49ers.com, ESPN.com, NFL.com unless otherwise indicated. Author, Kevin Mitchell Staff Writer at Niners Live. Co-Author, Editor NinersLive.

One thought on “49ers: Fans should be Optimistic, but Patient, with Rookie Cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon

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