49ers were wise to let Ahkello Witherspoon walk in free agency

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) /

The 49ers passed on the opportunity to re-sign cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon, which is probably a good move for both sides.

If there’s one thing San Francisco 49ers now know, it’s tough for players to get out of head coach Kyle Shanahan’s proverbial “doghouse.”

Wide receiver Dante Pettis was a clear-cut example. So was running back Matt Breida. The Niners bid farewell to both.

And the latest in that chain? Cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon, San Francisco’s third-round pick from the 2017 NFL Draft, who signed a one-year, $4 million fully guaranteed contract with the 49ers’ chief NFC West rivals, the Seattle Seahawks.

Good for Witherspoon. And good for the Niners, too.

Granted, it made some sense for San Francisco to retain Witherspoon. Certainly not at that cost, though. The 49ers still have some depth concerns at cornerback despite re-signing Jason Verrett and Emmanuel Moseley. Verrett’s lengthy injury history could have made Witherspoon a decent reserve piece capable of starting in a pinch or over a stretch of time.

But that’s where things get complicated for Witherspoon.

Unlike Pettis, who reportedly wallowed in being benched by Shanahan, Witherspoon responded as positively as could be to being benched in favor of Moseley late in 2019 and into the playoffs that season. That’s a plus. And there were moments where Witherspoon looked like a quality starter, too, including his rookie year where he secured a starting job, then again early in 2019 before suffering a lengthy injury.

Heck, Witherspoon even finished 2020 on a positive note.

The problem, though, was the lack of consistency and voids of confidence when needed most.

Perhaps no other position needs consistency more than cornerback. True, every cornerback will have a down play here and there, and the occasional bad game can be the norm, too. The problem with Witherspoon, however, was he’d go through cold spells that could last four, five or even six weeks.

In the case of his 2018 campaign, it was nearly a yearlong drought of good play.

It’s possible the 49ers could have banked on those kinds of efforts from Witherspoon on the cheap. But if he was able to receive that kind of guaranteed money, the Niners had no need to match it given Witherspoon’s inconsistency.

49ers have to hope Ahkello Witherspoon doesn’t thrive with Seahawks

Last year, the Niners waived/injured reserve defensive back D.J. Reed, whom Seattle claimed and subsequently turned into a quality nickel cornerback.

After losing cornerback Shaquil Griffin in NFL free agency to the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Seahawks have room to let Witherspoon play as a starting boundary corner right away. If there’s a bonus for both sides of the NFC West rivalry, Witherspoon will be joining a defensive scheme awfully similar to the one San Francisco operates. He knows it well.

At the same time, though, the 49ers know Witherspoon’s strengths and weaknesses. That could be a plus Shanahan looks to exploit twice, perhaps even three times this upcoming season.

Witherspoon is still young enough, though, turning 26 years old later this month. And while his career has been marked more by ups and downs rather than consistency, the change in scenery was certainly something he needed.

In a way, the Niners needed it, too, knowing they had no interest in paying that kind of money for a player who had been in and out of the starting lineup and created more liability concerns than confidence.

As long as Witherspoon doesn’t experience an upward trajectory in Seattle, San Francisco should be good with its decision to let him walk.

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