The 49ers passing defense faced its toughest test on Sunday against Joe Burrow and the Bengals. Kirk Cousins put on a show the week prior, but he didn’t have the same weapons that Cincinnati did.
The results weren’t pretty for the Niners secondary, but the process was just as bad. It’s difficult to fathom the 49ers not making any changes, regardless of what Kyle Shanahan said during the postgame, after allowing 19 straight completions to Burrow and looking non-competitive against the pass for much of the game.
Adding a cornerback will allow the team to kick Deommodore Lenoir into the slot while your potential upgrade plays outside. The biggest takeaway from Sunday’s game was that the cornerbacks lacked the speed or athleticism to stay with the premier wideouts in the NFL.
Don’t get me wrong, there aren’t many players who can run with Ja’Marr Chase, but he averaged 4.1 yards per separation at the time he was being targeted — and that’s on 12 targets. You must judge your team based on performance against the best, and Sunday proved that the 49ers have little choice but to add talent at the position.
Let’s go over four potential trade candidates at cornerback for the 49ers. The trade deadline is Tuesday afternoon, so San Francisco has roughly 26 hours to work the phones.
Jaylon Johnson - Bears
Let’s start with the obvious. Prior to last night’s game, Bears general manager said dealing Johnson would have to make sense for both sides, and that he expects the Bears to be “fairly quiet” through Tuesday’s deadline. Chicago’s beat writers are convinced that Johnson doesn’t get dealt.
But there’s always a price.
If Poles doesn’t want to deal Johnson — who is a free agent after this season and will require a contract extension — unless he’s getting a third-rounder or better, then a team like the 49ers may be forced to come in and up the ante.
Losing your second-round pick for a cornerback who turns 25 in April and had allowed a 20 percent completion percentage heading into Week 8 is far from a risk. The 49ers have the cap space to extend Johnson and Brandon Aiyuk, too.
Teams go out of their way to avoid throwing at Johnson. From Week 1 through Week 6, he wasn’t targeted more than three times. The Raiders threw at Johnson six times in Week 7, and he had two interceptions.
Johnson would be a significant upgrade, but it may come down to the Niners willingness to “overpay” to get the Bears to change their minds about moving Johnson. It’s impossible to gauge Johnson’s value with him being a free agent at the end of this season.
Donte Jackson - Panthers
Carolina should be sellers. Jackson has one more year left on his contract before it voids in 2025. If we’re discussing under-the-radar names who could instantly make a difference for San Francisco, Jackson is at the top of the list.
I brought his name up a week ago. Jackson’s raw numbers will scare you. He’s allowed 14.6 yards per target compared to Johnson’s 3.8. What I see is a player who embodies what the 49ers want to do. Jackson is one of the faster cornerbacks in the NFL, and has only been targeted 16 times on 133 coverage snaps heading into Week 8.
That’s a six percent lower target rate than Lenoir. That tells me Jackson is doing his job on the plays where he’s not targeted, while occasionally allowing the big play. I’ll roll the dice on those low percentage 50/50 throws down the field as opposed to a cornerback consistently allowing receptions, which has been the case with Isaiah Oliver — especially recently.
Jackson turns 28 in a week, and gives the 49ers a veteran with speed, confidence, and would give Steve Wilks trust to play man coverage. He’d come with a $15 million cap hit in 2024, so that number might have to be re-worked, but that’s up to Paraag Marathe and the front office.
The objective should be to obtain players you believe are upgrades at the position and figure the contractual language out later.
Benjamin St-Juste - Commanders
Washington came into Week 8 saying that their willingness to move players at the deadline would depend on how their game on Sunday went. Well, they gave up 38 points and lost.
The Commanders should be more willing to move St-Juste as they have a first-round cornerback waiting in the wings behind him.
St-Juste is under contract for one more season, and his base salary i only $1.3 million. Last season was St-Juste’s first season as a starter. He’s 6’3”, 200 pounds, and had only allowed one touchdown on 35 targets coming into Week 8.
But, as with most corners who go against the Eagles, St-Juste did not fare well. He allowed seven receptions on eight targets for 80 yards and a touchdown. Recency bias may make teams like the 49ers sour on St-Juste, who would be more of a stop-gap at the position than the answer.
Ahkello Witherspoon - Rams
Laugh all you want, but Ahkello would be a significant upgrade for the 49ers. This would be one of those rare intradivision trades. The Rams aren’t going anywhere this season, especially with Matthew Stafford hurt. Witherspoon is on a veteran minimum contract for this season. That’s worthy of a Day 3 pick.
Ahkello has quietly played well this season. He’s allowing 41 percent of his targets to be completed, and has only one touchdown allowed on 29 targets, compared to three pass breakups, two interceptions, and a dropped pick.
Witherspoon has always possessed the requisite athleticism to succeed in the NFL. Physical tools were never his issues. Here’s how he’s fared against some of the NFL’s elite this season:
Seattle: 2 targets, 2 receptions allowed, 33 yards
49ers: 1 target, 0 completions.
Bengals: 8 targets, 3 completions, 29 yards, interception
Eagles: 5 targets, 2 completions, 18 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT.
Think about the receivers Witherspoon faced against those teams. Cornerback is about being competitive and in position to make a play. That’s Witherspoon.
Against the Cowboys on Sunday, Ahkello was targeted four times against CeeDee Lamb, allowing 29 yards on three completions, but one of those went for 21 yards.
Would the Rams deal one of their better players to the 49ers, even if he’s on a one-year deal? Would Kyle Shanahan welcome Ahkello back? I remember vividly seeing Shanahan scream at Witherspoon in practice back in the day. And we all know how his tenure ended.
Still, the talent is there, and you’d think Witherspoon would be welcomed back into the locker room. Ahkello is a viable option which would allow Lenoir to play in the slot.