Finding consistency at cornerback has been an issue for the San Francisco 49ers as of late. Rashard Robinson looked the part but flamed out quickly. Ahkello Witherspoon had a very successful rookie season but took some lumps in 2018. Witherspoon talked about how his second season was a disappointment a couple of weeks ago.
Witherspoon knows that he won’t be able to get away with relying on his athleticism in the NFL, and this is technique will be what takes his game to the next level, not his physical gifts. Consistent technique, studying his opponents, and simply being in position will go a long way in Witherspoon’s development. His improved surroundings should help, as well.
‘Spoon’s coverage grade for PFF was a 39.8 last year. A grade of 70 is average. Finding the ball was a problem in 2018. He also committed ten penalties and gave up five touchdowns. Ahkello will have a handful of plays in a game where he looks like a star. Then he’ll have plays where he looks completely lost. The long plays should be a focal point this offseason for Witherspoon. Limit those, and his stats would look much better.
Age: 24 (not 25 until March 21, 2020)
Experience: 2 accrued seasons
Weight: 195 pounds
Witherspoon signed a four-year contract worth $3,884,665 with the 49ers on May 11, 2017. Witherspoon received a guarantee worth $973,572 including a $973,572 signing bonus. His cap number for 2019 is $1,058,768.
Why he might regress in 2019
Witherspoon would have to get complacent in his training and studying to be worse than he was in 2018. I don’t think he played as poorly as the PFF grades suggest. Witherspoon had the same success rate as Xavier Rhodes, Casey Hayward, and Aqib Talib. There were plenty of good plays. It all comes back to consistency with Witherspoon.
If Witherspoon is giving up big plays this year, it’ll be because of his tackling. His broken tackle rate was 18.9% last year. For comparison’s sake, Richard Sherman was at 9.1%. Witherspoon will need to cut that number down. He was also targeted 60 times and managed to get his hands on one pass. That can’t happen again. Not if he or the 49ers are going to take the next step.
Why he might improve in 2019
There will be plays this upcoming season where Witherspoon does everything he did a year ago, but the result is different. If he looks for the pass just a split-second sooner and breaks it up, he will be worlds better. If he can finish a play or a tackle, as opposed to lunging or flailing at the receiver, you will see a vast difference in Witherspoon this year.
His physical traits are through the roof. Witherspoon has shown the ability to be a reliable corner in this league. The odds of Witherspoon only breaking up one pass again are slim. Dee Ford and Nick Bosa are going to make Witherspoon, or whoever is in the secondary, better simply by being on the field.
A realistic stat line for Witherspoon in 2019: Seven or more pass breakups. Two or more interceptions. Drive that broken tackle percentage under 12%, and stay healthy all season.