The writing has been on the wall throughout the offseason for Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon. The team apparently made it official on May 17.
NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported that the Steelers have told Witherspoon that he will be released. With the move, the Steelers have opened an additional $2.518 million in cap space.
“The Steelers have informed veteran CB Ahkello Witherspoon that he’ll be released, source says,” Rapoport wrote on Twitter. “He started 7 games over the last two seasons.”
Witherspoon held a $5.48 million cap hit before his release, and cutting him came with a $1.48 million charge in dead money for the Steelers.
Therefore, his release saves the team $4 million in cap space.
Akhello Witherspoon’s 2022 Struggles After Strong 2021 Campaign
The Steelers acquired Witherspoon in a trade with the Seattle Seahawks just before the start of the 2021 season. Initially, it turned out to be a great trade for Pittsburgh.
The player grades from Pro Football Focus ranked Witherspoon the Steelers’ best cornerback during 2021. He particularly excelled in coverage, earning a 79.7 grade out of 100.
That grade ranked him seventh-best in coverage among cornerbacks who played at least 20% of his team’s defensive snaps in 2021.
But Witherspoon’s breakout was short lived. In 2022, he posted the second-worst PFF player grade of his career. According to PFF, Witherspoon was the worst Steelers cornerback in coverage last season.
After starting the first three games, Witherspoon missed the next four weeks with a hamstring injury. In his return during Week 8, he allowed two long touchdowns against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Witherspoon never played again last season after that.
Steelers Replace Witherspoon in Free Agency, NFL Draft
The Steelers releasing Witherspoon doesn’t come as a huge surprise after what the team has done at cornerback the past couple months.
After losing top cornerback Cameron Sutton to the Detroit Lions to begin free agency, the Steelers signed veteran Patrick Peterson. Then in the draft, the Steelers added Penn State cornerback Joey Porter Jr. at No. 32 overall and Purdue cornerback Corey Trice in the seventh round.
During Day 3 of the draft, general manager Omar Khan also signed veteran slot cornerback Chandon Sullivan.
Peterson and Sullivan, along with safety Dominate Kazee, will work together to help replace Sutton’s versatility in the secondary. Meanwhile, Porter is expected to fill the starting role opposite Levi Wallace, which is where Witherspoon began the 2022 season.
With Trice and veteran James Pierre providing cornerback depth too, the Steelers have a full cornerback room. Steelers Depot’s Alex Kozora didn’t expect Witherspoon to make the roster.
“Ahkello Witherspoon had no path to make the 53 [man roster],” Kozora wrote on Twitter. “Not after the team drafted Joey Porter Jr. and Cory Trice Jr.
“Dude’s shown flashes of talent. Made big plays down the stretch in ’21. But his career has been defined by terrible inconsistency.”
Witherspoon began his career as a third-round pick for the San Francisco 49ers. In six NFL seasons, he has recorded 152 combined tackles, including 3 tackles for loss, 35 pass defenses and 8 interceptions.
In 13 games, including seven starts, with the Steelers, Witherspoon posted 35 combined tackles, including 1 for loss with 11 pass defenses and 4 interceptions.
After his release, Spotrac reported the Steelers have roughly $10.2 million remaining in cap space.
It will be interesting to see if the Steelers use the additional cap space and roster spot to make another significant move. But Kozora argued that releasing Witherspoon had everything to do with the unlikelihood that he was going to make the roster.
“Just don’t want to carry him on the roster if he’s not going to make it and him get hurt in OTAs,” Kozora wrote. “Make the move ahead of it.”