It’s been a rollercoaster of hopes and disasters for the San Francisco 49ers secondary over the last two years.
The 2017 team cut starter Tramaine Brock after a domestic violence arrest and moved nickel corner Jimmie Ward to safety. The brand new duo of head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch signed slot corner K’Waun Williams as their first free agent and drafted Ahkello Witherspoon in the 3rd round of that year’s NFL Draft.
But the real excitement was over second-year man Rashard Robinson, a physical 6-foot, 2-inch cornerback who seemed perfect for San Francisco’s new Seattle-style Cover 3 defense. Pro Football Focus raved about him, calling him the top rookie cornerback for 2016 and 10th best cornerback overall, using the Coverage Snaps Per Reception metric (250 minimum) to justify the love.
He earned the No. 1 cornerback spot in 2017’s camp and proceeded to turn in erratic play at best; a flair for swagger and play-making mixed with an even larger flair for penalties. By Halloween, he was traded to the Jets for a 5th round pick, having seven pass breakups, one interception, a forced fumble, and an NFL-leading 10 flags in just eight games. (This year, he totaled 83 defensive snaps all year as the Jets’ fifth cornerback, and stunk.) Meanwhile, 49ers No. 2 cornerback Dontae Johnson turned in a different lackluster performance that same year.
That saga repeated this year, with second-year phenom Ahkello Witherspoon starting at right cornerback after a strong finish to his rookie season — and then struggling in the spotlight. There are some key differences. Witherspoon played No. 2 opposite Richard Sherman, the latter of whom was signed as a free agent after tearing his Achilles last year. Compared to everyone’s expectations (except, apparently, his own), Sherman overachieved. Opposing offenses avoided targeting the former Seahawk, adding pressure on Witherspoon.
By early December, PFF ranked Witherspoon the worst among 77 qualifying cornerbacks. Three ex-cornerbacks were roasting him publicly as well. One of those ex-cornerbacks, Donte Whitner, said Witherspoon, “has all the physical tools...” but, “he is the most non-physical player in the National Football League right now.”
Witherspoon improved in December. In the Week 14 game against Denver, ‘Spoon was targeted six times with no completions. Coaches comments were in the positive, though the narrative that he turned his whole season around may have been somewhat exaggerated.
Nary an interception, sack, stuff, or forced fumble came in the 14 games he played for 2018 and he notched just one pass breakup in his final four games. Witherspoon finished his last two games on injured reserve with a partially torn posterior cruciate ligament. Shanahan’s exact words about him were carefully chosen:
“I think he definitely was finishing better than he started. But, his story is not written yet. He’s got to improve.”
Meanwhile, the coach was talking up yet another rookie cornerback who finished strong: Tarvarius Moore. Faster and more physical Witherspoon, Moore came in to the Seahawks game after Witherspoon’s season-ending injury in Week 14, and was immediately targeted for a Doug Baldwin touchdown.
Despite the touchdown, he played the final minutes tough. This includes the Seattle’s final three downs during regulation where he made the play each time to shut things down and help send the game to overtime.
Tarvarius vs. Ahkello should be the marquee cornerback competition in training camp; barring a blockbuster acquisition, Richard Sherman is a lock to start at left corner again. But if both young players prove themselves, there is room for each of them to start at cornerback (eventually). Sherman is 31 years old and has discussed a switch to free safety in the future.
Head to head, I’m not sure Witherspoon goes into the offseason with any sizable lead over Moore. In the three games he played at the end of the season, Moore had 16 tackles, two pass breakups and a forced fumble.
Meanwhile, K’Waun Williams has been an excellent free agent pickup, rock solid as the starting nickel corner, and rookie D.J. Reed, a 5th round pick, did a great job spelling him from Week 14-on when Williams got injured. Reed struggled earlier in the season as a replacement safety, but even so that versatility — and some excellent special teams work — make him a safe bet to make the roster as a backup corner next year.
Two reserve cornerbacks, Greg Mabin and Tyvis Powell, were picked on by good quarterbacks . They’re fine for depth, but don’t be surprised to see some rookie or free agent beat them this summer.
As encouraging as the development of some younger players was, let’s not lose track of the fact that the Niners had a bad secondary this year. They set an all-time NFL record for the fewest interceptions (with two), and second worst was Houston in 1982, a strike-shortened season that only had nine games.
If GM John Lynch gets tired of this merry-go-round of promising young mid-round cornerbacks who fade in their second year, the Niners might decide to draft LSU cornerback Greedy Williams - a consensus top-10 or even top-five draft choice this year. Despite the team’s need for an edge rusher, it might make sense to get Greedy with their first pick — especially if the team could trade down a couple of positions for a mid-first rounder they could use on Florida’s Jachai Polite.