There are some players that are so physically talented that you’ll believe in them forever. I will never shake Corey Davis; I will never shake Dante Pettis; I will never shake Ahkello Witherspoon, the fourth-year San Francisco 49ers corner that is still impossibly good about 14% of the time.
Witherspoon looked legit following his rookie season in 2017, during which he was asked to take CB1 reps despite being selected in the third round of the previous draft. Witherspoon earned that responsibility, only seeing his first live action in Week 5 and getting 100% of the snaps by Week 8, proving an adept Seattle Cover-3 cover man in the mold of such players as Byron Maxwell and Richard Sherman—whom defensive coordinator Robert Saleh had coached when he was with Seattle from 2011-2013 as a defensive quality control coach.
Of course, in 2018, the Niners would sign their long antagonist Sherman from the division rival Seahawks, entering the year with two prototypical corners for the Seattle mold of Cover-3 defense: Sherman (6-foot-3, 205 pounds) and Witherspoon (6-foot-3, 195 pounds). It was a great plan on paper, and that’s where it stayed: Witherspoon massively regressed in 2018. His ball production was almost cut in half and he surrendered five touchdowns without an interception, as opposed to the three he had given up last season.
Three ex-NFL defensive backs sat down with The Athletic in 2018 to discuss what had happened to Witherspoon’s game, relative to the promise he showed in his rookie year: Donte Whitner, Ronde Barber, and Eric Crocker. The verdict was that Witherspoon’s talent remained—but his energy, effort, and technique had all taken a step back. Barber theorized that the early success in 2017 had gotten to his head in 2018, saying “I think him having really quick success maybe put a sense in him—and I don’t know this because I don’t know him—I just get a sense that he feels like he made it when he really hasn’t. Starting in the league doesn’t mean you’re a starter in the league.”
It’s fair that Barber hypothesizes here, and it’s made fair by the emphasis he makes that he doesn’t know Witherspoon. What we do know now that we didn’t know then was how Witherspoon would perform in 2019: a very mixed bag.
Witherspoon came out of the cannon hot. Still the starting corner opposite Sherman, Witherspoon’s first three games in 2019 had tremendous film, including quality reps on the outside against Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, perhaps the most dangerous WR duo in the NFL. The concerns that were rampant in 2018 concerning his physicality and press technique seemed answered.
And then Witherspoon got hurt. A foot injury that included a quad setback held Witherspoon out for five weeks of the season, during which he was replaced by 2018 UDFA Emmanuel Moseley. Moseley (5-foot-11, 184 pounds) did not look nearly like Witherspoon and Sherman, yet with injuries to Jason Verrett and disappointment in Dontae Johnson, Moseley was the next man up. To his name, he had only special teams snaps.
He was… good! Good enough that the return of Witherspoon to the starting lineup was far from a certain thing. While the Niners slowly ramped Witherspoon back into starting play to ensure he was healthy, Moseley never really lost his rotational role or the heart of the fanbase, especially when he filled in well for a one-week Sherman absence. It is a good problem to have—only one roster spot for two good corners—but eventually, someone has to win the starting job.
Moseley did, because Witherspoon once again wasn’t right. Coming off of his injury, Witherspoon’s fire was gone, and he reverted back to the lazy habits of the 2018 season. He had good reps that should not go unacknowledged, and he gave effort in key games—but he just wasn’t delivering the way the Niners needed. Meanwhile, with more diverse coverage schemes trickling through the cracks in Saleh’s Cover 3 philosophy, Witherspoon’s gangly zone transitions and average route awareness were fading relative to Moseley’s quick eyes and quicker feet.
During his seven-game stretch of starts in the regular season (Weeks 4-10), Moseley gave up 1.02 yards/target (58th in the league), saw 7.5 snaps/target (37th in the league), and only gave up a catch every 13.8 coverage snaps (30th in the league). Once Witherspoon took the starting job for the rest of the season and into the playoffs, Witherspoon’s 1.42 yards/coverage snap was 94th in the league, his 6.0 snaps/target was 87th in the league, and he surrendered a catch once every 8.8 coverage snaps—93rd in the league.
Moseley was better. There are no two ways to slice that.
The Niners figured it out by the playoffs, benching Witherspoon during their final regular season game against the Seahawks, and then again in the playoffs against the Minnesota Vikings, before entrenching Moseley as the starter in the conference championship game against Green Bay. Moseley will enter 2020 as the presumed starter opposite Sherman, and it will be his job to lose—Witherspoon likely will not have a chance to win it in camp.
Is this a foregone busted pick? Not necessarily. It’s worth restating: Witherspoon has far more natural talent than Moseley does. Moseley is just a consistent and reliable option at CB2, even if he isn’t the best starting corner in the league—Witherspoon cannot seem to string a full season of good games together. It is not so easy as to say Witherspoon’s a bad technician—he is, but only occasionally. It is not so easy as to say Witherspoon doesn’t care—he does, but occasionally falls asleep. It’s that he just cannot seem to rebound from bad plays or maximize good plays. He’s often in position on eventual touchdowns, then uber-aggressive and risk-prone for the rest of the game; unwilling to check receivers who are clearly more physical than he is. There is, perhaps, no more mercurial player in the league.
What then, do the Niners do with Witherspoon? They don’t extend him—not when Moseley is still healthy and playing well. The Niners have still elected to go bargain hunting at the position, spending no picks in the 2020 NFL Draft on an outside corner, leaving Witherspoon the presumed CB3 on the roster. At this point, his only hope for a second contract is to find a starting gig either through poor starter play or injury, then ball out and force the Niners to continue extending his developmental leash, hoping that he’ll finally steady out into a reliable player.
If not, Witherspoon is absolutely a player who could benefit from a change of scenery. Rejuvenation for his love of the game and faith in himself seems like the doctor’s orders for Witherspoon, who may take to a different style of coaching, a less complex system, or just a fresh start altogether. The talent will always remain with Witherspoon, even if this season is a wash as he waits for his next opportunity.