49ers: Ahkello Witherspoon faces make-or-break season in 2020

49ers (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
49ers (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images) /

San Francisco 49ers’ cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon has a lot to prove in 2020

San Francisco 49ers‘ cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon has had a bit of a rocky three years in the NFL thus far.

After impressing as a rookie back in 2017, Witherspoon took a major step back in his second season finishing as one of the worst cornerbacks in the NFL. In fact, his 44.5 Pro Football Focus grade in 2018 ranked dead last among 112 qualified cornerbacks in the NFL.

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That was a steep drop-off from his excellent 74.5 grade in his rookie season that ranked 38th among qualified players. Needless to say, he had a lot to prove in 2019.

And to his credit, Witherspoon played exceedingly well over the first three games of the season. Unfortunately, a foot injury would keep him out of action until Week 11 and upon his return, he looked more like the 2018 version of himself.

Witherspoon struggled so much that he was replaced by the same player who filled in for him while he was sidelined — former undrafted free agent Emmanuel Moseley.

Who did the 49ers replace Witherspoon with?

Moseley burst on to the scene in 2019 finishing with a PFF grade of 70.4 ranking him as the 31st cornerback in the NFL. And if you’re getting technical, that essentially means he played to the caliber of a low-tier No. 1 cornerback for most of the year, according to PFF.

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Again, that’s if you’re getting technical.

Moseley’s success would be Witherspoon’s downfall as he would remain on the bench and special teams throughout the postseason. To his credit, he remained a fantastic teammate throughout the whole process and seemed to take everything in stride.

But going into 2020, he’ll need to rebound with a strong showing in training camp and the preseason to get his career back on track.

Moseley is expected to enter the summer penciled in as the No. 2 cornerback opposite Richard Sherman. And given the fact that Witherspoon is in the final year of his rookie contract, he’ll need to give the 49ers a reason to extend him at the end of the year.

That might be difficult considering the fact that Moseley will likely be a cheaper, more controllable option for the future. However, Witherspoon could convince the team otherwise if he could exceed expectations in 2020.

First, he’ll obviously have to regain his starting job, however.

Witherspoon has the talent to be a starting-caliber cornerback in the NFL. Unfortunately, injuries have derailed his development throughout his career and no instance was this more evident than last year.

The Colorado product legitimately balled out through the first three games of the season only to see his progress halted due to an untimely injury. If Witherspoon doesn’t get hurt there, who knows how his 2020 season goes?

Perhaps he not only holds on to the starting job, but establishes himself as a long-term building block of the defense. With Sherman’s contract up at the end of the year as well, perhaps Witherspoon is looked at as his long-term replacement.

We’ll never know.

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There’s still time for Witherspoon to prove his doubters wrong and succeed in 2020 and beyond. But 2020 is no doubt a make-or-break season for the former third-round pick.