San Francisco 49ers cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon had a forgettable sophomore campaign in 2018, yet he looks to bounce back in a big fashion in what will be a crucial 2019 season.
Or, at least, use it as a vital part of the learning process — a process many young defensive backs deal with after transitioning from the collegiate ranks to the NFL.
Witherspoon started off slow after the Niners selected him in Round 3 of the 2017 NFL Draft, but eventually earned the starting job and looked to be a shoo-in on the boundary for the long run. Yet Witherspoon, like many of San Francisco’s second-year pros in 2018, struggled considerably.
And his numbers took a massive hit in the process:
There was a foreshadow of Witherspoon’s struggles last year in training camp, as he was often beat in coverage during practices. That tendency carried over into the regular season, which ultimately led to the former Colorado product reaching, often being flagged in the process.
No other member of the 49ers was flagged for more penalties than Witherspoon’s seven last year.
Witherspoon’s difficulties extended beyond the traditional stats, too. According to Pro Football Focus, Witherspoon ranked dead last among 112 qualifying corners in 2018.
Simply put, it can’t get much worse entering 2019.
Yet there are reasons to assume Witherspoon bounces back in a big way this season. Let’s examine why.
Why Ahkello Witherspoon Improves in 2019
Rare are the defensive backs who gain entry to the NFL and thrive immediately, then consistently stay at a high level. So one needs to exude patience here. Plus, those signs of Witherspoon’s 2018 difficulties were on display in training camp.
During organized team activities, Witherspoon looked vastly improved over what was seen over the majority of last season, prompting The Athletic’s Matt Barrows to say Witherspoon was the “man to beat” at boundary cornerback opposite Richard Sherman.
Unlike last season, Witherspoon isn’t going to simply be “handed” the starting job either. This offseason, the Niners brought aboard oft-injured veteran corner Jason Verrett on a one-year deal, who figures to compete with Witherspoon.
When healthy, Verrett is a tremendous player, meaning Witherspoon will have to bring his top game.
If he does, Witherspoon will appear to have turned a corner on a forgettable 2018.
Why Ahkello Witherspoon Regresses
Well, it’s going to be hard to regress much further than what Witherspoon went through in 2018. Perhaps the only further length he could go in that direction would be him relegated to a role/depth player, which is entirely possible.
OTA performances are one thing, but the true indication how far Witherspoon has bounced back from last season won’t be known until training camp. It’s possible he merely flashed some solid play during the previous padless practices.
When the pads come on and the intensity ramps up, Witherspoon could find himself struggling again.
It’s anyone’s guess what this could do to Witherspoon’s confidence. And if he enters 2019 on the decline, it wouldn’t be the first time the 49ers had some flashes from a rookie corner, only to see him fizzle out later. Remember former Niners defensive back Rashard Robinson, anyone?
Projected Role and Impact with the 49ers in 2019
Ideally, San Francisco would like Witherspoon to secure the starting job opposite Sherman in 2019. The Niners have more invested in Witherspoon than they do Verrett, and Verrett’s lengthy injury history is already a cause for concern.
Witherspoon, meanwhile, is much younger and has a better bill of health.
That said, after a combined 10 wins the last two seasons, 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan is going to be inclined to put the best players on the field as much as possible. Should Witherspoon struggle, or simply lose the camp competition to Verrett outright, the former could wind up being little more than an immediate backup.
But there are plenty of reasons to be excited about Witherspoon, too.
He did flash some promise late in 2018, showing his ability to bounce back already from some underachievement. And with another full offseason to hone his craft and develop technique, there’s an excellent chance fans witness an entirely different player this season and beyond.
Niners fans are certainly hoping the latter winds up being the case.