Of all the position battles about to take place for the San Francisco 49ers at training camp, perhaps none will be more important than who will start opposite Richard Sherman at cornerback. The Niners simply don’t have much there in terms of a long-term options, which is why it’s imperative that Ahkello Witherspoon prove he can be a starter for years to come.
A third-round pick out of Colorado in 2017, Witherspoon was inactive for the early portion of his rookie season, but once he finally got on the field he made an immediate impact. In just nine starts, Witherspoon recorded two interceptions and had seven passes defended, tying for the team lead in both categories. Overall, Witherspoon received a grade of 81.1 from Pro Football Focus, which was the fifth highest for any third round pick that year and 42nd amongst all NFL corners.
After such a strong start, Witherspoon was an unquestioned starter heading into 2018, but things went south quickly. A lower leg injury hampered him early, and mental lapses seemed too common (to be fair, mental lapses were a problem with the entire secondary).
Adding insult to injury, Witherspoon was constantly targeted by opposing offenses, who seemed to be avoiding Sherman on the other side. While Witherspoon’s play did improve towards the end of the year, another injury cut his season short. It’s fair to wonder if he was ever really healthy at all. Regardless, his final grade from Pro Football Focus fell to an ugly 44.9, which put him 112th in the league at his position.
Despite the rough sophomore campaign, the 49ers have shown faith in Witherspoon by not adding much competition this offseason. Free agent addition Jason Verrett will be in camp on a one-year deal, but despite being ultra-talented, Verrett has only played five games the last three seasons due to injuries of his own. Also, Tarvarius Moore, who was a third-round pick in 2018, has moved from corner to safety.
While Verrett will indeed be competing to start, it would benefit the 49ers if Witherspoon beats him out. The reason is that even if Verrett has a good season, he’s hard to rely on for the foreseeable future because he simply hasn’t been able to stay on the field. Investing in him beyond the short-term is too risky. Also, Sherman is 31-years old and is only signed through 2020.
The best thing for the 49ers is to have the 24-year old Witherspoon show that 2018 was a fluke, and he’s closer to the player we saw in his rookie campaign. That development would give the team a stable building block on the outside of the defense, and someone who would help solidify the position in the years to come.