SEATTLE – Ahkello Witherspoon is free to say it now.
If he’d had the chance to pick his team coming out of Colorado in 2017, he says he would have chosen the Seattle Seahawks.
He grew up in Sacramento, California, admiring the Legion of Boom secondary as he came of age as a football player. As the draft neared, he thought his size (6-foot-2, 195 pounds) and skill set would make him a perfect fit for the Seahawks’ system.
He’d also made an official predraft visit to Seattle and felt comfortable with the coaches.
“If you asked me where I wanted to go, it was Seattle,” Witherspoon said.
Instead, Seattle’s fiercest rivals – the 49ers – foiled those plans by taking Witherspoon at No. 66 overall. The Seahawks took Shaquill Griffin at No. 90, but might well have drafted Witherspoon had he still been available.
But after four years and 33 starts with the 49ers, Witherspoon found himself essentially no longer wanted by San Francisco after the 2020 season as the 49ers re-signed cornerbacks Jason Verrett and Emmanuel Moseley as presumptive starters for 2021.
Witherspoon said at that point it was “a no-brainer” to sign with the Seahawks once they offered him a one-year, $4 million deal almost the minute the free-agent signing period began.
Seattle needed reinforcements after losing Griffin to Jacksonville on a three-year deal worth up to $40 million with $29 million guaranteed. The expectation is that Witherspoon will slide right into the left corner spot Griffin played the past three years.
“It’s a good opportunity for him,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said.
Seattle, though, has lots of corners on its roster – officially 10 – and Witherspoon will have to win the job in camp.
But when he talked with Seattle media members via Zoom on Thursday for the first time since his signing, he showed that in one sense he is indeed a chip off the old LOB block.
“I think when I was healthy, I was the best corner in the league,” Witherspoon said confidently when asked to assess his four years with the 49ers. “And I’m not going to settle for anything else.”
That comment not only raised many eyebrows but created many debates on social media, especially from 49ers fans who pointed to moments such as Witherspoon being benched while apparently healthy during the playoffs when the 49ers advanced to the Super Bowl following the 2019 season. Witherspoon was replaced after giving up a 41-yard touchdown reception to Stefon Diggs in the divisional playoff game and did not play a down on defense in the NFC title game or Super Bowl.
But as Witherspoon noted, he battled a slew of injuries throughout his 49ers career, which contributed to him playing in just 47 of a possible 64 regular-season games.
Those ailments included knee injuries in 2017 and 2018 as well as a concussion and a hamstring injury last season. Those injuries contributed to Witherspoon making a career-low four starts with a career-low 333 snaps in 2020.
But when he played, Witherspoon played well, according to Pro Football Focus. Witherspoon’s grade of 80.2 in 2020 was the sixth best of 121 corners (Griffin’s grade of 64.6 was 49th).
He played particularly well down the stretch in starting the final three games, including allowing just two receptions for 11 yards on six targets in the regular-season finale against the Seahawks when he was often matched up against DK Metcalf (who was held to just three catches for a season-low 21 yards).
That game was undoubtedly at the top of Seattle’s mind when the Seahawks made the decision to go after Witherspoon.
“We’ve seen him play the last couple of years at the Niners, and we’ve seen the style of play that he brings,” Carroll said. “He’s got the makeup – speed, size, length – the kind of stuff that we liked in our guys.”
Carroll also likes that Witherspoon is just 26 years old despite having been in the NFL for four years.
“He is still a very young player, almost like a rookie to me coming in,” Carroll said. “He’s not, but it feels like that a bit. We’re going to teach him. His first time in the program, just take him right back to the basics.”
Witherspoon said he had “very minor” surgery on his knee following the season and now considers himself healthy – he’s been in Seattle the past two months since signing, rehabbing at the team facility in Renton – which he said will make a significant difference.
“When you’re not healthy, it’s difficult to stay at that level that it takes to be All-Pro, that it takes to be a Pro Bowler,” he said. “And so I’m just extremely excited right now just to be healthy, clear-minded, in a new environment and I’m just very excited to put that on tape.”
Asked to go into detail about the injuries and which impacted him the most, Witherspoon politely declined saying, “It doesn’t matter. I’m here now, I’m healthy. You’re going to see.”
While Witherspoon already had a good feeling about the Seahawks, before signing he made a call to one of his former 49ers teammates – Richard Sherman.
Witherspoon played the past three years with Sherman in San Francisco – he moved from the left side to the right when Sherman arrived in 2018.
“He said it would be a great fit,” Witherspoon said. “… He was very helpful and just encouraging for me to make this decision.”
Having taken Sherman’s recommendation, Witherspoon now becomes the latest Seahawks cornerback to try to help Seattle live up to the legacy set by Sherman and the rest of the LOB.
“I think the biggest thing I got from him was just that confidence,’’ Witherspoon said of what he learned playing alongside Sherman. “Just to show up every day and know that you’re there for a reason and that your technique and your hard work and your effort is what gets the job done and not making stuff up.’’
Coming to Seattle also represents for Witherspoon a chance to write a new chapter on the story of his career. He knows the perception is that it was filled with equal parts tantalizing potential and frustrating inconsistency. It’s one he’s vowing to change.
“There’s a lot of confusion I think about my talent,” he said. “And that is what comes with this business. And I have the job and I have the role to straighten people up, and that’s what I plan on doing.”
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