As Ahkello Witherspoon gets ready to return, the 49ers have a nice problem on their hands.
Witherspoon was playing at a high level at cornerback in San Francisco’s first three games. He intercepted a pass in the season-opening victory over Tampa Bay and returned it for a touchdown, and until he suffered a foot injury against Pittsburgh in Week 3, was ranked among the top corners in the NFL. He had five passes defensed – one more than he had in 14 games in 2018 – and was in on nine tackles, including one for a loss.
Veteran cornerback Richard Sherman said at the time that Witherspoon was "locked in" and had a strong mental approach that was paying off in terrific play in his third season.
After impressing the 49ers as a rookie in 2017 – when he earned nine starts – Witherspoon appeared to regress in Year 2. But this season, he was playing at his highest level yet, until the injury put him on the sidelines.
Now, as he gets ready to return – head coach Kyle Shanahan believes he’ll be ready to play Nov. 11 when the 49ers play the Seahawks on "Monday Night Football" – he might have some competition for his job.
In Witherspoon’s absence, former undrafted corner Emmanuel Moseley has played well. In this past weekend’s victory over the Panthers, Moseley had his first career interception, and the analytic website Pro Football Focus noted this week he was No. 2 in the league among qualified cornerbacks in quarterback rating allowed on passes into his coverage.
Head coach Kyle Shanahan said the 49ers liked him when they signed him in 2018, but he was hurt, so had to wait a year to make an impact. When the door opened for him with Witherspoon’s injury, Moseley was ready.
"Got his opportunity when Ahkello got hurt, and he’s gotten out there just like a lot of our guys who have gotten their opportunities because of injury," said Shanahan.
So, when Witherspoon is ready, who will start against Seattle on Nov. 11, Witherspoon or Moseley?
"You know, we haven’t crossed that (bridge) yet," defensive coordintator Robert Saleh told Chris Biderman of the Sacramento Bee this week. “Ahkello had been playing so well. That’s a tough question, but you never have the philosophy that an injury will put you on the bench. But Ahkello, he’s been working, trying to get healthy and when he’s ready to go he’s going to be ready to go."
Moseley will get another start Thursday night, when the 7-0 49ers play at Arizona (kickoff is set for 5:20). If it turns out Witherspoon regains his starting role the following week, there’s no doubt Moseley will continue to get snaps, too, in a variety of coverages and situations, after showing he’s a quality cornerback.
Quality depth has been a problem for the 49ers at the position, but it now appears they have it.