With Rashard Robinson earning the right to walk into the 2017 season penciled in as one starting cornerback, General Manager John Lynch has set up a heavyweight bout for the job opposite Robinson in the 49ers’ secondary.
Currently, on the roster, the team has Robinson, Dontae Johnson, Keith Reaser, Prince Charles Iworah, Will Redmond, K’Waun Williams, Zach Franklin and Ahkello Witherspoon listed as cornerbacks. Franklin and Witherspoon are rookies. While Franklin was not drafted, and is most likely headed for the practice squad or at best a role on special teams, Witherspoon was drafted in the third round and is being counted on to push Johnson for the second cornerback job. The drafting of Witherspoon set up a heavyweight battle between him and Johnson, who has been lining up as the first-team cornerback this off-season for the starting role.
Niners Live Note: On May 9, 2017, Niners Live looked at how personnel will be deployed in the new 4-3 Under Defense in, “49ers: How DC Robert Saleh Should Utilize His Defensive Talent”.
Tale of the Tape
Standing 6’2” and 6’3” respectively, and both weighing 200 pounds, Johnson and Witherspoon both fit the size Defensive Coordinator Robert Saleh is looking for to recreate the defense he has been versed in since he came into the league, the Seattle 4-3 Under. Long and rangy, with the speed to cover deep and keep up with receivers is the first requirement in this defense for corners. And for that skill set, Ahkello would seem to have a- leg up. Both players run in the low 4.4 seconds in the 40-yard dash.
Turning a Weakness in to a Strength
An accomplished soccer background has given Witherspoon almost unnatural footwork for a player his size. Coupled with his extra-long arms, Ahkello ”Stretch” Witherspoon consistently made pass breakups through his college career that seem unreal at times. “Stretch” led the NCAA in total passes defensed (23), pass breakups (22), and total passes defensed per game (1.6).
Pro Football Focus‘ grade for Johnson last season (2016) was as follows: 65.8 overall with a 67.0 coverage grade. His pass rush and defense grades were 57.8 and 49.9, respectively. Johnson totaled 101 snaps, 66 of those in coverage and 32 in run support, with three pass rush attempts. Johnson’s snaps have seen a decline since his rookie season when he played over 400 snaps. This is the first coaching staff to put Johnson out as a starter through off-season practices, indicating they see something in Johnson the past few staffs have not.
Note: In 2015, he had a grade of 71 overall on 366 snaps played on defense and in 2014 he had a grade of 66 overall on 467 snaps played on defense to be exact.
If playing cornerback was only about breaking up passes, this would not be a competition at all. Witherspoon would win the job without even having to practice. But this is football, and this is Niners Live, so ours and Saleh’s eyes are wide open.
As of now, Witherspoon has yet to show he is willing to tackle. While Johnson, since college, has been known to willing put his body into contact. Coming out of college, Johnson was viewed as both a safety and a cornerback. But he is best suited for cornerback because, while he will tackle, he will not be confused for an Eric Reid or Navarro Bowman. But he will do it.
For Witherspoon, the jury is still out on his tackling ability and his willingness to attempt to tackle. Which is exactly what General Manager John Lynch brought up to Witherspoon during his pre-draft visit. After Witherspoon was drafted, Lynch said of the tackling issues, “It’s something we raised to him and we didn’t hide from it.” During the three-day rookie minicamp, Witherspoon said his tackling was something that will become “a more effective part of (his) game”.
Best of the Rest
As mentioned before, Robinson is penciled in at the other starting outside cornerback. So where does that leave the rest of the cornerbacks in camp? Free agent signee K’Waun Williams and second-year corner Will Redmond will have their own battle for the inside nickel back role. This is a very important role as the league continues to be pass dominated roughly 70 percent of the time, making the nickel back position in today’s NFL seen as a starting position on defense. Keith Reaser and Prince Charles Iworah will push for playing time behind Robinson, Johnson and Witherspoon on the outside, and Iworah’s speed will also make him a candidate for a special teams role, most notably the gunner on the punt cover unit.
Iron Sharpens iron. Competition breeds excellence. Santa Clara will be a battleground this summer as jobs will be won and lost on the 49ers’ practice fields. John Lynch and Head Coach Kyle Shanahan have made minimal moves in the secondary, but those moves have given Defensive Backs Coach Jeff Hafley enough competition that the team should see an increase on its 19th ranked pass defense and keep a hold as the best team in interceptions per pass attempt. Finding a starting cornerback tandem will be paramount as the right two corners can help in pass defense as well as run support on outside run plays. While one player excels at one skill, the other excels at his weakness. The winner of this battle will be the one who can most quickly turn his weakness into a strength. And because of that, this battle won’t be determined until week three of the preseason, at the earliest.
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 Focus, 49ers.com, ESPN.com, NFL.com unless otherwise indicated. Author, Edward Erving Staff Writer at Niners Live, Co-Author, Editor Niners Live.