On March 19th, 2021, the Seattle Seahawks inked cornerback Ahekllo Witherspoon to a contract worth $4 million. About a week before the regular season, the Seahawks traded him to the Pittsburgh Steelers for a 2023 fifth-round pick, with the Steelers taking over the full guaranteed contract.
Before Seattle, Witherspoon spent his first four seasons with the team that drafted him, the San Francisco 49ers. He started in 33 of a total 47 games, where he was given a career-best defensive grade of 80.2 for the 2020 season according to Pro Football Focus.
Since being traded to the Steelers, he has earned a 79.3 defensive grade for the 2021 season with just one game left. On January 3rd against the Cleveland Browns, Witherspoon recorded two broken-up passes and an interception to earn him an 87.8 defensive grade on the day, according to PFF.
Pete Carroll was excited about bringing Witherspoon into the fold for the Seahawks. “We’ve seen him play over the years…and we’ve seen the style of play that he brings. He’s got the makeup, the speed, size, length, the kind of stuff that we liked in our guys. I’ve had my eye on him since we first saw him coming out of Colorado. He was available and we had the opportunity, so we pursued it.”
So why did the Seahawks trade this talented cornerback?
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Seahawks Are Building Towards the Future
With the loss of starting cornerback Shaquill Griffin, who signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars in the offseason of 2021, the Seahawks looked to Witherspoon to fill in that starting spot. During training camp, his play didn’t warrant a starting job and cornerback DJ Reed earned the nod at left cornerback. This prompted a move for cornerback Tre Flowers (now a Cincinnati Bengal) to start on the right side of the field.
The Seahawks didn’t let go of Witherspoon (26) without bringing in reinforcements first. They traded for University of Washington standout cornerback Sidney Jones IV (25), claimed Nigel Warrior (24) off waivers, and also signed John Reid (29) to the main roster. Tre Brown (24) and Gavin Heslop (24) are on injured reserve, however, they are pieces that can also fill in the cornerback position when healthy. Ugo Amadi (24) also plays some cornerback, as he played the position for three out of four years at the University of Oregon.
The Seahawks saw value in their young corners and were willing to acquire more assets for the future. The 2023 NFL draft feels that much closer, now that the Seahawks are out of playoff contention for this season. With a looming team restructure most likely going to take place, acquiring assets for talented players seems to be the direction the team is heading in.
Ahkello Witherspoon Needed Time and the Right Situation
Witherspoon is used to getting up when things get hard and is used to going with the flow. When he was traded from the Seahawks right before the beginning of the 2021 season, he was ready for it.
“I definitely felt something was off, just not starting in preseason,” Witherspoon mentioned in a press conference after his first practice with the Steelers. “I was surprised at the moment and then after that just thankful for the opportunity.”
Since he did not win out the starting position with the Seahawks, they felt like they could move on from this talented player to make room for improvement elsewhere, even if he was a fit for the defense due to his playstyle. With a new defensive scheme and players around him, Witherspoon was given an opportunity to start thriving.
In the second week of the season, Witherspoon played just four total snaps. After a Week 10 injury to starting cornerback Joe Haden, Witherspoon entered the fold to fill in for the injured star. Witherspoon played in seven straight contests, bringing his total snap count up by 304. He received a defensive grade of 34.8 for his week 2 contest, and then came firing out in weeks 14, 16, and 17 to receive grades of 89.5, 85.6, and 87.8 respectively, according to Pro Football Focus.
It’s difficult to gauge how Witherspoon’s growth into his current role would have panned out had he stayed with the Seahawks organization. With so much shuffling on the defense due to names being added to the COVID-19 list, injuries piling up on that side of the ball, and Witherspoon not winning his starting position outright before the season began, there are many factors that could have stunted or promoted his growth. Now that the Seahawks are out of the playoffs and the Steelers are knocking on the door for a Wild Card playoff run, it’s tough to see his success outside of the Seahawks organization.