No. 1: CB Ahkello Witherspoon
When the 49ers drafted former Colorado cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon in the third round of the 2017 NFL Draft, the team knew it was getting a raw, but physically gifted player who fit the team’s cornerback profile.
He showed himself to be just that during his rookie year, playing in 12 games (all Week 5 and later), and finishing the year with a respectable PFF coverage grade of 73.7. He was only flagged for two penalties during his time, and grabbed two interceptions, forced one fumble and defended seven passes in those games as well.
As well as his rookie year went, his sophomore season went about as poorly as it could have gone. His 39.8 PFF grade was among the lowest in the league, and he was flagged for 10 penalties in 14 games played. He had zero interceptions (a team-wide problem, to be fair), and recovered a fumble, as the 49ers seemed to flounder on his future as a valuable member of the team.
His play against Tampa Bay, then, was a sight for sore eyes.
Not only did he look comfortable in coverage throughout the game, but he showed an ability to clean up in the run game, had two tackles, three passes defended and this dagger to seal the game:
The confidence appears to have returned for Witherspoon, which seems to be vital to his success on the field. And make no mistake, this was a good receiving corps he helped hold in check, even if Buccaneers wideout Mike Evans (flu) wasn’t 100 percent during the game.
If Witherspoon can be consistent in his play across from Richard Sherman (who looked good, not great on Sunday), the 49ers should be good enough across the defensive backfield to hold up in coverage.
Combine that with a much improved pass rush, and the 49ers defense might actually be in decent shape in 2019.