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Ranking most important 49ers in 2018: No. 7 Ahkello Witherspoon

Rejoice, 49ers fans, for football is almost here. We are seven days away from the start of training camp, scheduled to begin Thursday, July 26, marking the beginning of a six-month-plus marathon that spans the NFL season. KNBR will count down the days by highlighting San Francisco’s most important players, from No. 14 to No. 1, accompanied by coach bios for each day preceding camp.

Let’s highlight cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon, our seventh-most important 49ers player in the upcoming season.

PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Ahkello Witherspoon

In late June, Witherspoon was invited to an exclusive cornerback summit alongside the stars who have set the standard at the position, according to Sports Illustrated. The quartet of Richard Sherman, Aqib Talib, Xavier Rhodes, and Darius Slay, who have combined for 12 Pro Bowls, worked on footwork and watched film together. Witherspoon, a 2017 third-round pick with nine career NFL starts, seemed out of place.

Sherman extended the invitation because he expects Witherspoon to make the leap into that upper echelon.

Look at Witherspoon, and you’ll see all the necessary traits: size, speed, footwork, intelligence, and good hands. The 6-foot-2, 195-pound Witherspoon stands like Sherman, but perhaps their greatest similarity is less tangible.

“I think this is the group I belong in, and turning on the tape confirms that,” Witherspoon told SI’s Robert Klemko. “I expect for us to be the best defense in the league.”

That Sherman-like confidence will put a target on this 49ers defense filled with exciting yet largely unproven youngsters. No projected 49ers secondary starter, aside from Sherman, started more than eight games last year. The 49ers ranked 22nd in pass defense, allowing 235 yards per game, in 2017.

Like the rest of the position groups, however, the 49ers secondary clicked in the final third of the season. Witherspoon, who made his first NFL start in late October, emerged as the team’s top cornerback. The Colorado product did not allow a touchdown in the final five weeks. He tied for the team lead in passes defended (seven) and interceptions (two).

Witherspoon will have to prove he can maintain that production over the course of a 16-game schedule in order to ascend into the upper tier with which he associates. He will do so across Sherman, the three-time first-team All-Pro Witherspoon always envisioned playing with throughout college.

The praise has grown mutual in recent months.

“I invited him (to the summit) because I thought he could hold his own,” Sherman told SI.

Any cornerback is important in a Cover 3 scheme that relies on those guys to cover their third of the field with little help. Witherspoon is even more important to this 49ers for a couple reasons: the lack of depth at the position and the potential of opposing teams game-planning away from Sherman. If the 30-year-old returns to form — he looked physical and fluid before an Achilles rupture ended his 2017 season with the Seattle Seahawks in November— then expect offenses to target the Witherspoon’s side. Sherman was consistently one of the league’s least targeted corners throughout his seven-year tenure in Seattle.

Can Witherspoon combat those opposing game plans? Can he continue a tremendous end of 2017 into a full 2018?

He expects that much. And if his play follows, a positive trickle-down effect will permeat a 49ers defense with untapped potential.

COACH SPOTLIGHT: Jeff Hafley, defensive backs

Hafley is one of the few holdovers among the current 49ers coaching staff from the Chip Kelly regime.

Entering his third season as San Francisco’s defensive backs coach, Hafley brings 18 years of experience at both the NFL and college levels, working with some of the NFL’s best. He bounced around small schools before landing a job as a defensive assistant in 2006 with the University of Pittsburgh, where he worked with Darrelle Revis. The eventual four-time first-team All-Pro was named a finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award, given to the nation’s top cornerback.

Hafley followed to the NFL six years later. His first NFL gig was as an assistant defensive backs coach for the Buccaneers in 2012. One year later, Hafley and Revis reconvened when the Jets traded the superstar corner to the Bucs. He produced his fifth Pro Bowl season in his lone season with Tampa Bay.

Hafley left to take a job with the Cleveland Browns as their lead defensive backs coach in 2014, spawning his first partnership with Kyle Shanahan, Cleveland’s offensive coordinator at the time. In Hafley’s first year, Cleveland finished was the top defense in opponent completion percentage, opponent passer rating, and passes defended. The Browns sent cornerback Joe Haden and safeties Donte Whitner, and Tashaun Gipson to the Pro Bowl that year.

Since he arrived with the 49ers, Hafley’s units have finished 14th and 22nd in pass defense. It seems he finally has a young, promising group that will grow together ahead of 2018.

The starting group is already solidified, barring any injuries or major surprises in training camp. Witherspoon and Sherman are implanted as the starting cornerbacks. K’Waun Williams is the nickel corner. Jaquiski Tartt, who signed a two-year extension this offseason, is the strong safety. And Adrian Colbert enters his second season, and first as a full-time starter, as a promising free safety.

San Francisco’s highest-paid defensive player this year isn’t a projected starter. That would be Jimmie Ward, who is the backup at every secondary position. With the inevitable injuries any secondary experiences, Ward is an important, though expensive, insurance option.

The Sherman-led 49ers secondary faces some questions, but there is plenty of positive anticipation surrounding this group.

This story is part of a two-week training camp countdown highlighting 49ers coaches and ranking their most important players from No. 14 to No. 1. Check out the rankings below.

No. 14: Kyle Juszczyk

No. 13: Solomon Thomas

No. 12: Adrian Colbert

No. 11: Pierre Garcon

No. 10: Weston Richburg

No. 9: Jerick McKinnon

No. 8: Mike McGlinchey


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