It sounds like Ahkello Witherspoon has a leg up on the competition for the starting cornerback job opposite Richard Sherman. After an inconsistent sophomore campaign in 2018, the third-year cornerback has impressed this offseason. At least, that's the take from a couple of well-respected San Francisco 49ers beat writers.

Witherspoon started the majority of the games opposite Sherman last season but a sprained posterior cruciate ligament (PCL) during Week 15 created an opportunity for Tarvarius Moore, then a rookie, to start the final two games of the year.

Witherspoon, a third-round draft pick in 2017, has appeared in 26 games with 21 starts over during his two NFL seasons and registered 69 tackles, 11 passes defensed, two interceptions, and a forced fumble. He impressed during his rookie campaign but struggled early in 2018.

"He went through some lulls last year and took a step back, but fought his way through it," head coach Kyle Shanahan said on Wednesday. "To finish the year, I think he realized, 'I played one year. I didn't have it all figured out. I realized that my second year.'

"Now he comes in here with a very clear mind. He's confident because he knows he can do it, but he also knows he's got to work at some stuff, too. I've seen a guy who came in with the mindset to be a lot better."

San Francisco concluded its offseason program on-field work on Wednesday and Witherspoon received some rave reviews for his progress. Of course, that comes after watching non-contact work, and the media has been limited in what it has been allowed to observe. While reporters were allowed at both minicamp practices this week, they were limited to one session a week during organized team activities.

Still, that's a pretty good sample size to start making some assumptions.

"Cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon might have been the best player on defense during the offseason program," wrote Matt Maiocco of NBC Sports Bay Area. "He routinely had tight coverage and broke up numerous passes."

Matt Barrows of The Athletic added, "Witherspoon has looked good — he's has had at least one highlight — in every practice that's been open to reporters. What's more, the plays have been of the aggressive variety with Witherspoon playing tight on receivers and hawking the ball on short throws at or just beyond the line of scrimmage."

Moore has been competing at safety this offseason. Maybe Witherspoon's impressive offseason made the decision to move Moore from cornerback to his natural position — the one he played in college — of safety easier.

"Perhaps his play, coupled with Richard Sherman's improved health, encouraged the 49ers to move Tarvarius Moore to safety this spring," wrote Barrows, who doesn't believe Moore would have been able to compete with Witherspoon.

Maiocco sounds more confident about the reasoning behind the move.

"Witherspoon's elevation in play –- along with Jimmie Ward's fractured collarbone – prompted the 49ers to move Tarvarius Moore to free safety," he wrote.

During the team's time off, Witherspoon shouldn't feel satisfied with his short-term victory. More competition will be coming during training camp. The next hurdle for Witherspoon is making sure newcomer Jason Verrett doesn't leap past him on the depth chart.

Verrett has not participated during the team's offseason program because he is rehabbing from a torn Achilles he suffered last summer.

"I feel like I'm going to be on track to be ready for training camp and the rest of the season," Verrett told reporters on Wednesday.

The 49ers consider him to be one of the league's best cornerbacks. The only problem is that injuries have prevented Verrett from proving that to be true. His healthiest season came in 2015 and earned him a Pro Bowl selection.

"When he's on the field, he's one of the best corners in our game," Sherman said of Verrett in May. "When he's healthy, and he's moving, he has great instincts, he has great movement, he has good ball skills. He's just a pest. He's always there. He's always close to the ball. Even when the receiver is making a catch, it's really a tough, contested catch."

The 49ers have received a lot of criticism for bringing in players with injury histories, but general manager John Lynch believes Verrett was worth the risk.

"Jason Verrett is an [Pro Bowl] football player when healthy," Lynch said in May. "He hasn't been healthy, so there's a lot of risk-reward there, but we wanted to add there, and we took a gamble. We think that's a good flyer."

Verrett feels confident about his chances to land a starting role once he's healthy and has a chance to prove himself on the practice field.

"The day I get on that football field, they're definitely going to like what they see," he said.

The starting job opposite Sherman should be one of the more intriguing storylines heading into training camp.


  • Who will start opposite Richard Sherman in 2019?
  • Ahkello Witherspoon
  • Jason Verrett
  • Other