At Colorado, cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon blossomed into a playmaker.
This past season as a senior, he broke up a nation-leading 22 passes, was in on 23 tackles, had an interception, a forced fumble and a recovered fumble. As a junior, he had 36 stops and two interceptions.
Now, the third-round pick of the 49ers has signed his rookie deal with the team that reportedly will pay him $465,000 in 2017.
It’s possible, too, that Witherspoon could compete for a starting job. The starting corners at this point would appear to be Rashard Robinson and Dontae Johnson, but Witherspoon has some special attributes. As Nick Wagoner of ESPN.com noted Monday, Robinson seems a lock to start on one side, but the other side where Johnson is deemed the leader “is still a major question mark.”
“Witherspoon could force his way into the mix if he proves that he can be a much better tackler than he was in college,” wrote Wagoner.
The NFL.com scouting report on Witherspoon before the draft, in fact, indicated that Witherspoon wasn’t an impressive hitter or tackler against the run. It noted he was “almost always in a state of retreat” on running plays his way.
Yet Witherspoon has terrific size (6-foot-3), length and speed and his footwork is rated excellent. As a pass defender at that size, Witherspoon could be highly effective against the NFL’s bigger receivers. Noted that NFL.com scouting report: “(He) gets to top speed quickly with long, easy strides to chase receivers down the field. Plus athleticism allows for quick recovery when beaten early off release.”
Witherspoon also is highly intelligent, a pre-med student who wants to become a surgeon, and a versatile athlete who excelled at soccer and baseball.
That soccer background, he says, has been key to his development as a defensive back.
“That footwork that you need to play soccer is second to none,” Witherspoon told Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee. “As a smaller individual when I was younger, my footwork and my technique were keys to me to be successful. As a bigger person now, I still have that same pride in being technical. I feel that extends from the soccer.”