Ahkello Witherspoon just hasn’t been the same since sustaining a foot injury in Week 4 of last season.
After starting the 2019 season with a bang, returning an interception for a touchdown in the opener, Witherspoon looked primed for an All-Pro season playing alongside Richard Sherman in his first three games. But when he returned to the field in Week 11 something just wasn’t the same. Witherspoon no longer looked like an All-Pro, and soon lost his starting job to Emmanuel Moseley, who also began the 2020 season as the starter.
Witherspoon was back in the starting lineup last week replacing the injured Sherman, and again struggled in coverage against a weak Jets offense without its best receiver. Through two games, Witherspoon is the lowest graded 49ers cornerback according to Pro Football Focus.
So what happened to what looked like the 49ers’ defensive back of the future? 49ers beat writer Matt Maiocco thinks the issue lies in Witherspoon’s mindset.
“Ahkello’s a very, very bright kid,” Maiocco told Murph & Mac on Tuesday morning. “I think that at some positions you don’t want guys who overthink. I think that he might be an over thinker. At cornerback you just want guys to just go play, and if you get your butt beat on one play, you go out there with the same confidence and the same swagger, almost like a cluelessness.
“There are so many guys over the years who I’ve talked to during the week and you’re asking them about a game and they look at you like they’re the greatest player in the world, and you walk away going ‘that guy is clueless. He thinks he’s a lot better than he really is.’ Then the guy comes out the next week and plays well and you think if that would’ve been me, I would’ve been on my heels the whole game because of what happened the week before.
“I think Witherspoon, we saw it last year. It was like one bad play led to another and led to another. Ultimately some bad plays down the stretch and into the playoffs got him benched because (Emmanuel) Mosley has this kind of ‘I don’t give a crap attitude’ where he’s had to earn everything throughout his career, he’s an undrafted rookie and just so even keeled.
At 6-foot-3, 195 pounds, Witherspoon has prototypical size for a cornerback, especially in Robert Saleh’s system. It’s part of the reason that he was selected 66th overall in 2017. But at one of the most difficult positions on the football field, the mental aspect is just as important.
“Witherspoon is a very talented guy, he has all the measurables you want in a cornerback, he has to just kind of bring a little bit more swagger and belief in himself. This was not a good performance. He started off last year so well and he was able to ride that momentum and then he had the injury and when he came back he just didn’t come back with the same kind of fire and confidence when he left the lineup.”
Listen to the full interview below.