After a surprisingly strong rookie season in 2017, cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon looked like a longterm solution to the 49ers’ problem at that position.
So, when the team acquired veteran Richard Sherman to play opposite Witherspoon in 2018, San Francisco looked as if it had a strong tandem for the next couple of seasons, at least.
Yet as the team heads toward the NFL draft on April 25, cornerback remains a concern because of Witherspoon’s rough sophomore season. Again, it’s likely the 49ers will select another cornerback in the draft.
The Niners added former Charger Jason Verrett to compete with Witherspoon this offseason, but Verrett has had major injury problems in the past. His durability is an issue, though his first-round talent isn't.
The perfect scenario, of course, would be for Witherspoon to bounce back, have Verrett remain injury free and have Sherman repeat what he did in 2018.
As Chris Biderman of the Sacramento Bee noted recently, a Witherspoon rebound would be huge for the defense.
“If you had to ask the team’s brass, I’d bet they want Ahkello Witherspoon to be atop this conversation (of players best positioned for an improved performance in 2019),” he wrote. “The 49ers badly need to improve their play in the secondary, and getting Witherspoon to bounce back at corner opposite Richard Sherman could be big for the defense’s turnaround.”
At 6-foot-2, Witherspoon gives the 49ers a tall, rangy corner to battle the NFC West’s taller wideouts.
As a rookie in 2017, he came on strong, starting nine games, had two interceptions and seven passes defensed as well as 32 tackles. In 12 starts in 2018, he had zero interceptions, four passes defensed and 37 tackles. He was beaten often early in the season.
Witherspoon went from having an outstanding 81.1 grade as a rookie from the analytic website Pro Football Focus – and called “one of the most impressive rookies in the NFL” – to a 44.9 grade.
The good news for the 49ers and Witherspooon, however, is that he improved later in the season (before going on injured reserve). If Witherspoon can learn from last year’s rough start and rebound, the team’s effectiveness and depth at cornerback could be significantly better in 2019.