By: Chris Sanchez (@Chucky__Sanchez)
Final Edit: (@Zachhernan)
This upcoming season, the 49ers will be implementing a new defensive scheme. After years of employing different variations of the 3-4 defense, they will be doing a complete 180 and rolling out the Seattle version of the 4-3 defensive alignment. One of the core concepts of the 4-3 “under” defense, is having the defensive backs in a “cover three” (also known as three-deep zone) alignment. What this really means is that the coverage will be split into three by three defensive backs. Each cornerback will take one side of the field outside the hashes (Dick Sherman and Brandon Browner), and the free safety will cover the area between the hashes (think Earl Thomas). One of the main benefits of this coverage alignment is that it permits the strong safety to come up and play near to the line of scrimmage and aid in run support (Kam Chancellor’s role).
This new defense can be extremely effective as evidenced by that one team up in the Northwest. As with any defense, it can only be at its best if and when the proper talent is put into place in order to execute it. Needless to say, but the 49ers have spent quite some time drafting players to fit the 3-4 defense. So it was no secret that new players had to be brought in, and roles had to be changed for others in order to implement the 4-3 system. It was up to John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan to work with defensive coordinator Robert Saleh and decide who to bring in and who on the current roster could adjust to a different role in the new defense.
Specifically for the cover three to work properly, you need two press cornerbacks and one athletic, instinctive, and rangy free safety. For the latter, it seems as if the 49ers will allow Jimmie Ward to play in his college (and more natural) role. As long as Ward can stay healthy, I believe he is the perfect fit at FS. He has outstanding range, as well as outstanding instincts and ball skills. Additionally, I see one of the corner spots locked down by second-year standout Rashard Robinson. Robinson is long and fast, and excels at locking down receivers. With the added experience and weight-room work, he should be even better in his sophomore campaign. That leaves the other cornerback spot up for grabs.
ENTER AHKELLO WITHERSPOON
The 49ers drafted Witherspoon (Colorado) with the 66th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. He has all the measurables you want in a prototypical press corner – he is tall (6′ 3″), long (33″ arms), and can run (4.45 second 40-yard dash). If developed properly, Ahkello has everything the 49ers need to fill one of the two starting corner spots. Let’s take a look at Witherspoon’s strengths/weakness as evidenced by his college tape.
AREAS WITHERSPOON EXCELS AT
- Possesses fast feet and is very good at quickly changing directions through fluid hip movement.
- Athleticism and vision allow him to track the ball and break up passes with good consistency; only allowed a 26.5 completion percentage against in 2016.
- Demonstrates outstanding make-up speed after initially beaten off the snap.
- Second in the nation with 20 passes defended in 2016.
AREAS NEEDING IMPROVEMENT
- Seems to be borderline afraid in run support. This will definitely need to be addressed by the coaching staff first and foremost.
- Will need to get stronger to consistently win press battles with stronger NFL WRs.
- Needs to refine his ball skills. As good as he is at breaking up passes, only intercepted 3 passes in 143 targets.
As you can see, there is a lot to like in Witherspoon. His tape is filled with positives, mostly because of his freakish athleticism. He is still quite a bit raw (only played one year of HS football). The 49ers staff will definitely need to work with him on some concerning areas of his overall game. In all likelihood, we will see Keith Reaser or Dontae Johnson start at corner opposite Rashard Robinson when the season starts. However, I would not be surprised to see Witherspoon supplant one of those two at the midseason point or even earlier. If it all goes according to plan, the 49ers have the long-term solution at both cornerback spots in Robinson and Witherspoon. It will be a lot fun to watch those two grow and dominate together for years to come out by the Bay.
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