With the NFL Combine come and gone, and free agency about to get underway, it is officially the off-season. Now that teams have gotten the official measurements and athletic testing numbers of the top prospects in this years draft, their draft boards start to really get settled in. Players are going to start rising and falling in the media as information from teams about who they do and don’t like starts to spread. In this portion of the off-season, Colorado cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon is a prime candidate to fall into the “riser” category.
Ahkello Witherspoon, Cornerback, Colorado
Think about everything the NFL covets in a cornerback these days; Length, speed, agility, and vertical ability should be some of the first physical traits that pop into your mind. In this sense, Ahkello Witherspoon is going to be some NFL teams dream. At 6’3”, 198 lbs, Witherspoon posted a 4.45 second 40 yard dash, a 6.93 second 3-cone drill, and a 40.5’ vertical jump that puts him in the 92nd percentile for all cornerbacks in the mockdraftable database. Combine this with 33’ arms and just under 10’ hands, and Witherspoon is a perfect cover-3 corner on paper.
One of the most important traits for a cornerback on the field is his ability to flip his hips smoothly and transition from his backpedal to running with his man without losing any speed. Witherspoon does this extraordinarily well, as evidenced by his 3-cone time. Not only does Witherspoon maintain his speed through his turn, he seemingly speeds up throughout the transition. It is extremely difficult to beat Witherspoon deep.
John Ross—who now holds the title of fastest man in combine history—had one of the worst statistical performances of his season when he was matched up with Witherspoon. Ahkello uses his length well, and knows when to get physical and when to keep his hands off, rarely committing penalties in the time I got to watch him. When teams get down to the red zone, it is extremely hard to beat Witherspoon.
Tackling is not something Witherspoon knows how to do very well. He didn’t show a lack of effort necessarily, but he certainly came off as cautious when matched up one on one with a ball carrier. Despite his good agility testing, he can be beat by quick, savvy route runners. He has a tendency to guess on a route, and receivers with good double moves or hesitations can get him to false step and get by him.
Witherspoon also needs to improve his timing of jumps. He had a couple instances in the games I watched where he had great position, was in position to break up a play on a jump ball, and mistimed his jump, allowing the completion (or at least the opportunity for one).
Witherspoon is lined up in man, transitions from his backpedal seamlessly, and mirrors his receiver on the comeback before using his reach to break up the pass. As technically sound as one could play that route.
Witherspoon guesses on the route, playing for a comeback towards the sideline. He breaks inside, and the wide receiver hits his stem and breaks back inside, leaving Witherspoon behind. In fairness, he was in zone on this play, but he needs to read the play better and keep himself in position.
Here’s another case of Witherspoon guessing the route and getting baited into a false step. The receiver gives him an inside jab and gets him to commit to the slant before bursting outside. This was a run play, so it didn’t hurt the team, but a pass play could’ve gone for a big gain here.
A great example of his length and red zone ability. He squares up his receiver and reads his route, then follows him into the slant and reaches around him without turning the receivers hips (which would draw the penalty), and uses his massive 33 inch reach to prevent the touchdown.
Witherspoon has a chance at the open field tackle on the WR screen. Instead of driving through the receiver before he can get moving, he hesitates and gives the receiver a chance to put a move on, and Witherspoon whiffs on the tackle.
Here is a good example of his willingness to tackle. The nature of the broadcast makes it hard to see him throughout the play, but at the end you can see him come in at full speed to make the tackle and keep the opponent out of the end zone.
A quick example, but Witherspoon’s hips are phenomenal. He reads the route and turns to run with John Ross, seemingly accelerating through his turn. This type of hip movement is incredibly valuable to a cornerback.
Let’s wrap this up with the most enjoyable play I found while watching Witherspoon. In the red zone—once again against John Ross—Ahkello begs him to take the fade. When Ross fake-sells the fade and breaks inside, to no avail. Turning his hips and breaking up the touchdown, Witherspoon was in position the entire way through. Ross and the offense had no chance.
While Ahkello WItherspoon’s profile screams “cover-3 cornerback” in the NFL (two of his most similar players on mockdraftable are Richard Sherman and Antonio Cromartie), Ahkello’s speed, length, and agility would allow him to play anywhere in just about any scheme. He needs to clean up his guessing of routes in order to play the slot, but his athleticism would allow him to fit there.
While the tackling could be a deterrent to the Patriots, Witherspoon fits the threshold of what New England looks for in a cornerback, and as of now he seems like he could fall to day three in this historically deep corner class. He is a round 2 value, certainly a day 2 value, and if he falls to one of the Patriots third round picks they should jump at the opportunity to add him to the defensive backs room.