Ahkello Witherspoon kicks off one of many offseason film zone sessions in which we break down the newest members of the San Francisco 49ers.
In this edition of San Francisco 49ers Film Zone, we will break down the game of former Colorado cornerback and newest member of the 49ers, Ahkello Witherspoon. Witherspoon was drafted by the Niners in the third round on Day 2 of the 2017 NFL Draft.
Witherspoon brings plenty of promise and could see the field this upcoming season as a starter across from second-year player, Rashard Robinson. Physically, Witherspoon has the attributes that defensive coordinator Robert Saleh wants for his Seattle cover 3 scheme: big, fast and long-limbed.
Running a 4.45-second 40-yard dash at 6-3 and with ridiculous 33-inch arms, Witherspoon certainly fills the mold needed for Saleh’s scheme. Yet, No. 23 is so much more than a phenomenal athlete. He is an incredible blend of elite feet, balance and hand-eye coordination. That last part especially combines well with his tentacle-like arms.
Over the course of 2016, Witherspoon defended 22 pass breakups per Rivals.com. In fact, Witherspoon tied for first with fellow Colorado Buffalo safety Tedric Thompson.
Which brings us to his film. Witherspoon was not always in the most optimal position, but his speed and length allowed him to recover enough to swat passes away. This is an ability that other defensive backs simply cannot replicate.
Film Zone: Exhibit A
Need evidence? Exhibit A demonstrates Witherspoon defending a third-and-2 against the deadly speed of former Washington wide receiver John Ross. Yes, the same John Ross who set an NFL Combine record for the 40-yard dash running it at 4.22 seconds.
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As can be observed by the tape, Ross gains inside leverage on Witherspoon. What’s more concerning is that Ross sets up Witherspoon going outside before coming back inside. This causes Witherspoon to go flat-footed at the top of Ross’ route.
This should be an easy touchdown catch for Ross, except Witherspoon is able to recover quickly. His balance keeps him from not leaning too much in either direction. Moving his feet quickly, Witherspoon immediately closes the gap between him and Ross. Then, he uses those long arms to swipe the ball away.
Just a reminder, this was third-and-2 against a player taken in the top 10 in the 2017 NFL Draft. So for anyone doubting if that recovery will be possible in the NFL, that should help you find the answer.
Film Zone: Exhibit B
In Exhibit A, Witherspoon showed off his ability to play well within close proximity of a wide receiver. However, Witherspoon shines best when opposing teams attempt to go deep. In the clip above, Witherspoon is once again matched up with Ross.
Considering that Ross ran a 4.22 in the 40-yard dash, Witherspoon is able to keep stride-for-stride with Ross for the majority of the route. Ross is able to gain a modicum of separation at the very end. Still, Witherspoon has faced the NFL’s fastest receiver and aced the test.
On other deep pass attempts, Witherspoon consistently broke up deep passes by staying over the top of the receiver’s route. In addition, his the ability to jump (37.5-inch vertical) allowed him to knock away passes that most wide receivers simply cannot go up and catch.
Film Zone: Exhibit C
The following clips provide additional evidence of Witherspoon showcasing his elite level balance and footwork. Something important to note is that prior to playing football, Witherspoon was a committed soccer player.
Witherspoon has attributed his excellent balance and footwork to his soccer skills. As you can see above, each attempt made by the man in front of Witherspoon gets treated as if they were trying to fool their older brother.
Every move was mirrored so well by Witherspoon that the opposing quarterback failed to get off his first read (see: John Ross; fastest NFL wide receiver) to the point that Washington quarterback Jake Browning gets absolutely lit up. The other wide receiver must feel as if they are trying to fake out a mirror.
Film Zone: Exhibit D
Another fantastic skill is his quick-flip hips and smooth back pedal. In the clip above, notice how he stays low, covers plenty of ground as he moves in reverse but he does not lose any speed or lose his balance. Then, he is able to switch his hips fluidly while exploding into full speed.
This allows him to play with the fastest wide receivers in the game.
Film Zone: Exhibit E
While he wins plenty of contests, he does lose some. Thankfully, when he loses it tends to come on underneath routes. As noted by Pro Football Focus, he lost on two common routes: hitches and comeback routes.
Yet, even when he is beat by an underneath route, he closes on that route in a hurry. By doing so, Witherspoon limits the receiver’s ability to run for yards-after-the-catch (YAC). It’s a good thing that he doesn’t have an issue tackling wide receivers. However, tackling tight ends and running backs is a whole other topic.
Film Zone: Exhibit F and G
While Witherspoon shows incredible promise as a press, cover 3 cornerback, he shows plenty of ruin as a run-supporting defender. This is the one area where Witherspoon loses. Take Exhibit F above for example, Witherspoon is in prime position to make the play against the tailback.
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The play is a first-and-10 and a stop is badly needed for his team as it is late in the game and they are down. He makes the correct read. A gaping hole opens up to his side of the field. All of his larger run stopping teammates are occupied.
Witherspoon clearly sees that the tailback is coming his way. He squares up for the hit as does the tailback. Unfortunately, Witherspoon settles by ducking his head throwing himself at his feet. While clearly being able to slow up the runner, Witherspoon whiffs badly and the runner gains an extra six more yards from where Witherspoon could have first wrapped him up.
Below is another example of Witherspoon not wanting to be very physical with the tight end. This lack of physicality made Witherspoon a mere speed bump for the opposing team’s tight end as he rumbled over him on his way to the end zone.
Considering Witherspoon’s athletic ability, a quality coach should be able to harness that element of his game. Nevertheless, here is where Witherspoon’s player profile rests. He is a player who shows plenty of potential as a pass defender but leaves plenty on the field as a physical, run-stopping contributor.
The truth of the matter is that Witherspoon is still one of the more talented cornerbacks heading into the 2017 NFL season. There is a very strong chance that he starts this season. Nonetheless, he enters training camp in direct competition with Dontae Johnson. At times, Johnson has shown real promise. At others, not so much. So far, Johnson has survived a series of purging moves by the front office.
If Johnson makes it to training camp — and all indications are that he will — then expect a tough camp battle between Johnson and Witherspoon. Ultimately, expect Witherspoon to win the starting spot before season’s end.