Can 49ers Ahkello Witherspoon reclaim starting cornerback job?

Ahkello Witherspoon #23 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Bobby Ellis/Getty Images)
Ahkello Witherspoon #23 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Bobby Ellis/Getty Images) /

Early in 2019, it appeared 49ers cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon was back on the rise. But inconsistency put his 2020 campaign efforts in doubt.

San Francisco 49ers cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon has plenty to gain and plenty to lose entering his fourth year as a pro.

The former Colorado defensive back, taken by the Niners in Round 3 of the 2017 NFL Draft, has had quite the up-and-down career, putting it lightly. He was inactive the first four weeks of the regular season his rookie year, then suddenly emerged as a competent starter in relief of the then-struggling cornerback, Rashard Robinson, which allowed San Francisco to part ways with the latter at that year’s trade deadline.

Yet Witherspoon suffered his own second-year regression in 2018, putting up a lowly 44.5 grade that year and committing a total of 10 penalties, per Pro Football Focus.

Ahkello Witherspoon Defense & Fumbles Table

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Generated 8/14/2020.

Witherspoon’s 2019 campaign was a microcosm of his NFL career in multiple ways. Starting off hot, the 6-foot-3, 195-pound defender managed five pass breakups and one interception returned for a touchdown his first three games last year before suffering a foot sprain in Week 3.

That injury both stunted Witherspoon’s maturation and opened up the door for depth cornerback Emmanuel Moseley to assume a more featured role.

When Witherspoon returned late in the regular season, it was pretty clear he wasn’t the same player. He was benched in favor of Moseley during the Niners’ Week 17 win over the Seattle Seahawks, then benched again during the divisional round of the playoffs shortly after giving up this ugly touchdown to Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Stefon Diggs:

Moseley never relinquished his hold on the starting boundary job opposite fellow cornerback Richard Sherman.

Entering the final year of his rookie deal, Witherspoon is now facing the prospects of retaking his starting job back. Or, just as possible, being in a situation where he could find himself off the roster entirely.

Needless to say, there’s a lot riding on Witherspoon’s efforts both in training camp and into the regular season, should he make it, and all that’s the subject of Niner Noise’s annual “Who Is?” installment on the embattled defensive back.

Why Ahkello Witherspoon improves with 49ers in 2020

Witherspoon has to understand he’s under the microscope. There have been flashes of great performances, yes, namely during his rookie season and especially during those first three weeks last year. Over that stretch, opposing quarterbacks posted a passer rating of just 66.7 when targeting him.

He also cut down on the penalties, too, being flagged just three times instead of the whopping double-digit numbers seen the previous season.

What needs to happen, however, is a return to some form of consistency. Even the best corners are going to be beaten and will look bad in the process from time to time. For Witherspoon to show he’s following an acceptable maturation process, he’ll have to find both the confidence and consistency to bounce back from those occasional and unavoidable gaffes.

Why Ahkello Witherspoon regresses with 49ers in 2020

Young defensive backs often struggle transitioning from the college ranks to the pros, and the Niners are no strangers to that happening. Even a first-year rookie can come out strong before going through a second-year regression, which is what Witherspoon endured in 2018.

But three years into his pro career, there’s a good chance Witherspoon simply “is who he is.” That would indicate an OK corner ideally suited for being a spot starter or high-quality reserve. Not much more.

Especially when you consider his passer ratings allowed between 2017 and last year were 94.6, 98.0 and 117.1, respectively, per PFF.

Tackling was also a rising issue for Witherspoon last year, him being tabbed with a career-high nine misses in 2019. This trend is troubling, as Witherspoon wasn’t known for being an overly physical corner during his collegiate years, and it’s the last negative aspect to his game he’ll want to be a factor.

Chances of making 49ers’ 53-man roster, projected role

There’s a pretty wide landing spot for Witherspoon after training camp. It’s entirely possible he outperforms Moseley in camp, potentially securing his old starting job again and relegating Moseley back to a reserve role.

At the same time, Witherspoon could lose a spot on the 53-man roster, should head coach Kyle Shanahan decide another defensive back is worth promoting up the depth chart. Should San Francisco move on from Witherspoon in the final year of his rookie deal, it’ll cost the team a mere $243,393 in dead money against $2.13 million in dead money.

Because of this, Witherspoon is squarely on the Niners roster bubble entering camp. His up-and-down career suggests he won’t be a re-sign priority for the 49ers beyond this season unless he comes back on a veteran’s minimum deal. So that puts a lot of pressure on him to deliver as much as possible.

And as soon as possible.

An estimated guess would peg Moseley as the No. 2 option behind Sherman, likely putting Witherspoon in a position where he could at least compete for a primary backup role guarding against injury.

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This is the likeliest of outcomes, at least right now, yet Witherspoon’s future in 2021 and beyond is still very much an open-ended question.