San Francisco 49ers cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon has been a vital part of the a surprisingly dominant defense. Now, he will be sidelined with a foot sprain for at least the next month. Niner Noise breaks down the impact and replacement options.
After showing flashes towards the end of his rookie season, which justified the San Francisco 49ers drafting him in the third round of the 2017 NFL Draft, cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon endured a sophomore slump like no other in 2018.
So much so, that he found himself in the doghouse and ended up being bench. Coming into the 2019 season, Witherspoon was determined to bounce back, and it showed right out of the gate versus the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where he recorded three pass breakups and had an interception returned for a touchdown. It’s clear he’d gotten his confidence back after a strong camp and solid preseason.
Witherspoon has been playing lights out so far this year, and coming into Week 3, he earned a Pro Football Focus grade of 83.3 (fourth in the NFL), while allowing a passer rating of 16.0 (second best in the NFL).
But Witherspoon exited Sunday’s contest against the Pittsburgh Steelers with a foot injury, and head coach Kyle Shanahan told the media on Monday the injury would keep the cornerback out “at least a month.”
There’s no doubt this injury is a tough pill to swallow for the 49ers, especially after suffering the loss of Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Staley on offense. But going into the bye week 3-0 with momentum after an emotional team win over the Pittsburgh Steelers makes it a little bit easier to deal with.
In order to address the vacant right cornerback position, though, the Niners have two options. They can use the “next man up approach,” which is a calling card of many championship teams. Or they can go out and acquire a corner with a very particular set of skills to ensure this defense keeps firing on all cylinders.
Shanahan stated there were several players in the defensive backfield who could fill in during Witherspoon’s absence. Names like D.J. Reed, Emmanuel Moseley and Jason Verrett are all serviceable and each bring something to the table. Verrett, being the elder statesmen of the group, has the most experience and would figure to get the nod. But Shanahan stated Moseley would be the lead guy right now. Verrett has played at high level in the NFL, making the Pro Bowl in 2015. But he hadn’t stepped on the field in almost three years before Week 3, after suffering injuries to his ACL and his Achilles.
This rust showed on Sunday when he was targeted on back-to-back deep plays and surrendered a touchdown pass to the Steelers.
Another in-house option is Jimmie Ward, who earned a 72.3 PFF grade playing corner back in 2015. This scenario might be least likely, seeing starting free safety Tarvarius Moore has consistently taken poor angles and missed tackles.
Ward may step into at free safety to help shore up the most crucial cover position in San Francisco’s defense.
Shanahan did not rule out exploring trade options to help fill the void. The obvious name which comes to mind here is disgruntled Jacksonville Jaguars star Jalen Ramsey. Shanahan did, however, make sure to note a trade would only be possible after a thorough assessment of how it helps the team today, and what it would cost the organization long term. Ramsey is a lock-down corner, who can shadow a team’s No.1 receiver and take him out of the game.
Adding Ramsey clearly upgrades the position. But it would require a long-term extension which could potentially send the wrong message to the locker room, with guys like defensive tackle DeForest Buckner and tight end George Kittle waiting on extensions of their own. Additionally, Ramsey has voiced displeasure with playing in zone schemes with the Jaguars, and that’s what the 49ers typically operate.
Sound off in the comment section below on whether the 49ers should go out and acquire Jalen Ramsey or roll with the guys they have in house.