On Friday Ian Rapoport of NFL Network reported that the Pittsburgh Steelers were making a trade for Seattle Seahawks cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon.
Shortly afterwards the Steelers confirmed the transaction, pending a physical. In return, Pittsburgh will send Seattle its fifth-round pick in the 2023 NFL Draft.
To make room on its 53-man roster, Pittsburgh released defensive lineman Henry Mondeaux.
Witherspoon’s NFL Career to Date
Witherspoon—who is 6-foot-2 and 195 pounds—was selected by the San Francisco 49ers in the third round of the 2017 NFL Draft out of Colorado (No. 66 overall). The 26-year-old spent the first four years of his career with the 49ers, during which time he appeared in 47 games (with 33 starts). All told he recorded 117 total tackles (99 solo), with four interceptions, 24 passes defensed, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery.
But the 49ers elected not to re-sign him when his rookie deal expired, and the Seahawks inked him to a one-year, $4 million contract in March. According to overthecap.com, the contract is fully guaranteed, but Witherspoon’s base salary for 2021 is a relatively modest $1.5 million.
More notably, last year he finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ sixth-highest rated cornerback (80.2 overall grade), but was Top 5 in the entire NFL in pass coverage (earning an 80.9 grade), behind the likes of Jaire Alexander (Green Bay), Xavien Howard (Miami), Bryce Callahan (Denver) and Darious Williams (Los Angeles Rams), who were ranked No. 1-4 in the league, respectively. It was a relatively small sample size, as he played in just 11 games last season (with four starts), thanks to a lingering early-season hamstring injury. But Witherspoon was excellent down the stretch for the 49ers last year and has the height and length the Steelers prefer in terms of their boundary corners.
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How Witherspoon Fits Into Pittsburgh’s Lineup
Before the trade, the Steelers had Joe Haden and Cameron Sutton starting on the outside, with James Pierre and Justin Layne as backups and Arthur Maulet or rookie seventh-round pick Tre Norwood being the team’s two best options at slot cornerback.
But Witherspoon is best suited to play outside, and the Steelers will likely keep him there, which would free up Sutton to move inside and play in the slot, where Pittsburgh doesn’t appear to have a strong replacement for Mike Hilton.
Coming out of college, Witherspoon was lauded by PFF for his “ability to break up a lot of passes with his length and vertical leaping ability,” with his tackling ability seen as a weakness.
In three seasons at Colorado, Witherspoon recorded 76 tackles (65 solo), with three interceptions and 30 passes defensed. He recorded a 40.5″ vertical jump at the 2017 NFL Combine (third-highest amongst all defensive backs), while running a 4.45 40-yard dash.
During his senior year in college he made 12 starts and earned second-team All Pac-12 honors while leading the nation in pass breakups with 23, the most in single-season school history.
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