49ers cornerbacks: New starters
The Athletic’s Matt Barrows said it best when he stated, “No 49ers player has gone from ‘He’s a rising star’ to ‘He needs to be replaced’ in the minds of fans as fast as Ahkello Witherspoon.”
Much had changed in the 11 months since Barrows’ previous article for the Sacramento Bee, titled, “Witherspoon emerges as top cornerback. Problem is, 49ers need two.”
Witherspoon’s NFL career is far from over, but his grasp on a starting job is. The second-year cornerback didn’t play well 2018, but he wasn’t as bad as he initially appeared. With his expectations now lowered to an appropriate level, if Witherspoon improves his technique and stops committing unnecessary penalties, he can become a starting-caliber NFL cornerback — but he’ll have to fight for his next starting job, and his main competition isn’t currently on the 49ers’ roster:
Outside Cornerback: Free agent or early-round 2019 NFL Draft pick
Last year’s acquisition of Sherman “paid off for the 49ers” in 2018 because opposing quarterbacks simply didn’t throw the ball in his direction, which padded the aging cornerback’s numbers. Over the offseason, the 49ers’ front office needs to add a talented cornerback who will force the opposition to target Sherman’s side of the field.
This player will come in the form of a free-agent acquisition, an early-round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft or both. The free-agent market will provide San Francisco with a number of talented former first-round picks to choose from, although each cornerback will also come with question marks.
As pointed out by Niner Noise’s Peter Panacy, Los Angeles Chargers oft-injured cornerback Jason Verrett is an elite talent and a potential steal if he can manage to stay healthy. If the 49ers choose to add free-agent depth before fully addressing the position in the draft, 29-year-old Morris Claiborne would be a cheaper option with a lower ceiling. More dependable than flashy, Claiborne would be a serviceable veteran who could challenge the Niners’ younger talents and act as a depth piece and insurance policy in case of injury.
Even if San Francisco plans to land a starting cornerback in the 2019 NFL Draft, Lynch and Shanahan won’t use the No. 2 overall selection, unless the team decides to trade their first-round draft pick. This year’s draft class contains three cornerbacks who are currently slated to go in the first round — and potentially in the first half of the first round. If the 49ers’ front office falls in love with one of this year’s cornerbacks, a trade-back scenario for a top corner is possible but unlikely due to the team’s glaring pass-rushing needs.
Draft boards will change drastically after next week’s NFL Scouting Combine, but as it stands, if San Francisco hopes to draft a first-year starter at cornerback, the top of the second round is where they’re most likely to find their man. We’ll learn more in the coming weeks, but Penn State’s Amani Oruwariye is a potential candidate for the Niners’ second selection. A favorite of Niner Noise’s Matt Stephenson, Oruwariye has the size and press coverage skills to fit into defensive coordinator Robert Saleh’s scheme, and will likely be available on Day 2 of the draft.