Niners live takes a look at one of the most competitive position battles heading into training camp. Three or even more players will be fighting to earn a starting spot alongside rising stud Rashard Robinson.
The 2017 San Francisco 49ers will be comprised of many new faces. There will be new starters at the majority of the positions on offense and defense. One of those positions is cornerback. After the release of incumbent Tramaine Brock, the 49ers were left with surprise second-year player Rashard Robinson and a big question mark. Who’s the other starting cover man? The leading candidates are Keith Reaser, Dontae Johnson and rookie third-round pick Ahkello Witherspoon.
The 49ers are switching defensive schemes from a 3-4 to a 4-3 under front. Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh’s defense places a lot of pressure on the cornerbacks because they will be playing man coverage predominately, rather than zone coverage. This requires the players to excel at jamming receivers at the line of scrimmage, recognizing routes, shadowing the receiver he is covering and ball skills when the ball is up for grabs.
Reaser, (26 tackles, and 5 passes defended in 28 games) and Johnson, (56 tackles, 14 pass defended and one interception in 47 games) have NFL game experience over Witherspoon. But, Witherspoon’s ball skills and upside are more impressive. He has a knack for lodging the ball out of the receiver’s hands just before the catch is made. His 22 pass break ups ranked first in college football last season.
During OTAs and minicamp, the defensive staff has rotated players with the first unit. Reaser has gotten most of the reps with ones, with Johnson rotating in as well. As a rookie, Witherspoon has been eligible to participate in off season activities, however, it will be in training camp where he really makes his push for the starting gig.
Player Attributes at a glance
- 5’10, 4.32, 40-yard dash
- 22 reps of 225lbs. at 2014 combine
- Comfortable in off man coverage, mirrors and shadows his man well
- Smooth hips
- Contributes in run defense and enjoys laying the lumber down
- Good football IQ with leader intangibles
- Length, 6’2, can match up against taller wide receivers and tight ends
- Good overall athlete, big and physical
- Doesn’t shy away from contact and tackles aggressively
- Average ball skills
- Position versatility, corner, nickel back and safety
- Smart with strong work ethic
- Length, 6’3, 33”, arms and speed, 4.45, 40-yard dash
- Quick feet, smooth hips and great change of direction especially for his height
- Excels in man coverage and constantly breaks on the ball at the point of catch
- Lacks physicality in the run game, can tackle but doesn’t show a desire to consistently
- Instincts are steadily in coverage and is developing the ability to diagnose routes
- Intelligent, Pre-Med student
In Closing: This position will only be settled once the pads are on and they can cover opponent’s receivers.
– Reaser has speed, showed potential in 2016, and is fully recovered from his college ACL injury.
– Johnson has height, speed, but didn’t play consistently on defense in 2016. He will have to have a tremendous training camp to earn the spot.
– Witherspoon has height, speed and exceptional ball skills and has a strong possibility to become the starter once he improves his tackling tenacity, understanding of the defensive playbook and adjusts to the speed of the NFL.
Matt Maiocco, 49ers beat writer for NBC Sports, was recently asked in a podcast who he believes would be the two starting cornerbacks in week one versus the Carolina Panthers.
“I would say Rashard Robinson, without a question. And I would go with Keith Reaser,” he stated (via Taylor Price of Niners Sports Radio).
Please join us again soon on Niners Live, home of the fan and analyst.
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All records, statistics, and accolades are courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com, Pro Football Focus, 49ers.com, ESPN.com, NFL.com unless otherwise indicated. Author Jimi Payne Staff Writer at Niners live. Co-Author, Editor NinersLive.