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Is Ahkello Witherspoon salvageable?

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It’s been a rough year for the young CB. Should the 49ers keep him?

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New York Giants v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

It’s been a hell of a roller-coaster ride for second year CB Ahkello Witherspoon.

In his rookie year, he was a stud. PFF rated him at 74.5, and named him Honorable Mention on their list of “2017 NFL rookie rankings through Week 17.(Reuben Foster was #6 of 10, damn it.) He got his first NFL start on October 29th against the Philadelphia Eagles, who eventually won the Super Bowl that season, and had a pass breakup, an interception and three tackles.

The 6’3”, 198 lb cornerback has prototypical size and speed for his position in this Seattle-style Cover 3 scheme. Richard Sherman is 6’3”, 195 lb, and this past offseason, the free agent addition took Witherspoon under his wing, inviting him to an all-star summer workout program for DBs. The future was so bright.... well, you know.

But Witherspoon’s 2018 has not turned out the way anyone (who roots for San Francisco) had hoped. The second year CB has struggled and then some.

Part of the problem is Sherman himself. He is so feared around the league that no one has wanted to test him. Instead, they have focused all their passes on the other side of the field, the one with a second-year cornerback. But that’s hardly the only reason for the promising DB’s struggles.

The (pay-walled) Athletic website recently convened an all-star panel of three former NFL defensive backs to critique his performance: Donte Whitner, Ronde Barber, and Eric Crocker, who also analyzes the Niners for the Better Rivals podcast. All three are familiar with the Niners and Witherspoon’s game film. The results were devastating (and fascinating).

They did NOT say that Witherspoon sucks, or lacks talent. Donte Whitner, the most outspoken, said that Ahkello “has all the physical tools. He’s 6-3, can move, can get in and out of breaks, can jam and be physical when he wants to.”

So what’s the problem? The verdict was far worse; he has the size and talent, they agreed, but he just doesn’t play tough, either jamming at the line or tackling on runs.

Whitner again: “I see it on film. He is the most non-physical player in the National Football League right now. … Every first play of the game or every second play of the game, a wide receiver comes and they attack him and try to let him know that, ‘We think you’re soft and you need to show more physicality on the football field.’”

Ouch. It’s a tough but very worthwhile read; you should check it out.

This is not a minority opinion. PFF ranks him dead last (77th) among qualifying CBs this year, with a rating of 44.7. Ronde Barber adds: “Everybody in the NFL sees it. It’s there.”

So how did he do Sunday against Denver? Not bad at all. And by amazing coincidence, the Niners D looked good in general. And they won.

Sure enough, Case Keenum tested Witherspoon on the Denver’s very first play from scrimmage, targeting Courtland Sutton on a go route. And just as Whitner noted, ‘Spoon did nothing to jam Sutton at the line. On the other hand, he tracked him tightly all the way, and looked back for the ball (to a fault.)

The CB lagged a bit trying to locate it, then jumped a bit too early, allowing the WR to get his left arm under the ball. But he was also right there and definitely disrupted the failed reception.

His second target came on 3rd and 2, at 2:24 of the first quarter. Again, he made no effort to jam as 6’5” WR Tim Patrick ran a short crosser straight across the field, right along the distance to gain. But Witherspoon not only kept up with him, he outran him to the ball and had a chance at an interception.

By my count Witherspoon was targeted 6 times and didn’t allow a catch. Pro Football Focus tagged him for two receptions and 18 yards — a solid showing either waay. He also clearly inhibited targets with his close coverage a couple of times, notably on first and goal with 4:09 left in the game and the Broncos making a comeback.

Part of this success was because Denver targeted Richard Sherman more than any team so far this year, and having some success with it. But they might have done that because Witherspoon was playing well. Maybe the criticism finally lit a fire under him.

Another part of his luck was courtesy of Case Keenum. On two passes, a good throw would have connected; the first was just before halftime when he bit on a double move, but Keenum overthrew his WR.

The second was on the play where the CB twisted his ankle, on second and goal with 4:05 left in the game. Spoon let Sutton get a step on him. He was close, but a bullet in the right spot would have been an easy touchdown. Instead, Keenum pushed it too far away from Witherspoon, and out of bounds.

As for tackling, he made the tackle on three of four plays where, to my eye, he should have. You wouldn’t call them tough hits, though; no one got up slowly from any of his tackles. On the fourth play, Courtland Sutton walled him off from ball carrier Patrick, and instead of fighting through the block, ‘Spoon stuck his foot out and tripped the runner, drawing a ten-yard penalty.

All that said, this was perhaps Witherspoon’s best game of the year and it offered a partial answer to the question: should the Niners keep trying to get him to live up to his potential?

Even his harshest critics don’t advocate abandoning him yet. Ronde Barber said:

“You just have to wait and hope that by that fourth year or fifth year — whatever year they have to make a decision on him — that he’s got it. And I think by then reality will hit him a little bit. And I think he’ll be fine.”

I’m not sure he’ll get that long to prove himself. John Lynch was able to get a fifth round draft pick for Rashard “THC-infused Peanut Buddah Buddah” Robinson, who played a total of 20 snaps for the Jets, so he could certainly get more than that for a player of Witherspoon’s abilities.

And Lynch was a famously physical DB himself, so it’s hard to imagine he’ll be indulgent of a talented big CB who is contact-averse.

If the second year CB can’t show some heart and physicality after a full year of mentoring by Richard Sherman, it might be time to trade him in for some draft capital. The Niners have seen this story before.