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Try to put yourself in Ahkello Witherspoon’s shoes. You’re 23, a third-round pick out of Colorado in 2017, and you had no idea what to expect in the NFL. Most guys say they knew back in college they’d make it in the league, but you’re honest, and you’ll admit you had no idea until you stepped onto the field in August 2017 and saw your first action as a 49er. Yet you thrived on a losing football team, earning the starting gig in late October. The team traded for a quarterback who led you to five straight wins to finish the season. A few months later they signed a three-time All-Pro cornerback to play opposite you. It’s all happening now, and there’s more.

The All-Pro has been watching you—on film, in OTAs—and he’s convinced you’re next. In a year, he says, the football world will know your name. He invites you to a gathering that’s the first of its kind. On a sun-soaked practice field at Stanford University in late June, you meet Aqib Talib, Darius Slay, Xavier Rhodes and the guy who invited you, Richard Sherman. Between them they have 12 Pro Bowl nods, six first-team All-Pro selections, two Super Bowl rings and something like $155 million in career earnings before taxes.

You work out with them, running cone drills to fine-tune your footwork, and then you watch film of each of your targets and explain to the room what you were thinking on each play. Talib, Slay, Rhodes and Sherman do the same, and you start to think maybe you deserve to be in this room with these giants of the position.

“I was watching these guys on TV in college, on Monday Night Football, in the playoffs, and to be around them is just a blessing. It’s surreal,” Witherspoon says. “I think this is the group I belong in, and turning on the tape confirms that.”

This self-styled cornerback academy was an attempt to take a page from Larry Fitzgerald, the Cardinals receiver who for years has hosted offseason workouts with dozens of receivers across the league. About 10 of the top cornerbacks in the NFL were invited to the first get-together at Stanford, with several citing scheduling conflicts and pledging to make the trip next year.

In this cornerback-centric episode of The MMQB, we talk to three CBs who changed teams in 2018—former Seahawk and current 49er Richard Sherman, former Bronco and current Ram Aqib Talib, and former Patriot and current Titan Malcolm Butler—to get their take on the change in scenery and break down their prospects in new defenses, or rather, old defenses with new faces. Plus I’ll give you my top 16 teams for 2018, and get into an interesting reaction to some bad news out of the NFL last week.

But first the CB summit, and the most important thing on the docket that weekend: For 90 minutes, the five corners broke down their own film and explained the methods that make them exceptional. Slay went into detail on how he interprets different 3x1 formations. Rhodes broke down when and how to be aggressive in man coverage.  Talib explained how he disguises coverages and “sits on routes,” leading to 10 interceptions returned for touchdowns in his career, putting him at fourth all-time behind Rod Woodson (12), Darren Sharper (11) and Charles Woodson (11). “Talib is great at taking the call coach gives you and using it to effect on the field,” Slay says. “He has a lot of pick-sixes because he sits on a lot of routes and jumps them. He’s great at route recognition and understanding how to use the call against them.”

They were all there to pick Sherman’s brain on fade routes; the former Seahawks cornerback (that feels weird to say, doesn’t it?) is renowned in the NFL defensive back community for being the best in the business at not only defending fade passes, but also intercepting them. He estimates two-thirds of his 32 career interceptions have come on this single route.

“It was great to hear Sherm talk about what he be thinking on those plays,” Talib says. “Running to that certain angle, and he showed two or three examples of it. That was something I felt I could really work on. He puts a lot of emphasis on it, and it turns into big plays.”

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During their two on-field sessions, each Pro Bowler introduced a drill that they felt was important. Sherman explained his six-inch first step and how he avoids wasting steps in the beginning of a route. Slay taught a backpedal drill for defending double moves. During breaks they discussed what makes the great receivers in the NFL great; how Antonio Brown will tug on a jersey discreetly and how he “late-hands” everything, as in not stretch out his hands to catch a ball until the very last possible moment, so as not to provide an opportunity for a DB to slap his hands away. As Witherspoon listened, they talked about the postseason and how the game gets even faster. “It really does become a game of inches when you get to the playoffs,” Sherman said. “You have to experience it to really get it.”

The goal for next offseason is to get more of the best cornerbacks in the NFL in Palo Alto, enduring $500-a-night hotel rooms to share their knowledge with the group. “It was dope, just picking each other’s brains and finding out what these guys are thinking,” Talib says. “We wanted to have more people come out, but it was our first time. We’re gonna get the kinks out and run it back.” Sherman is convinced that when they do run it back, Witherspoon will no longer seem like an interloper to anyone paying attention.

“I invited him because I thought he could hold his own,” Sherman says of Witherspoon. “I think from being around him, working with him, working out with him, watching him in OTAs and minicamp, I knew he could keep up with the workflow. I knew he would look the part. I knew, drill-wise, he wouldn’t be overwhelmed. His footwork is beautiful and technical. I knew that in terms of demeanor and just being able to just walk around and not be star-struck by these guys, he’d be fine. I think he belongs with those guys, and people will figure that out in a few months.”

The two-day experience energized Witherspoon and left him with some lofty goals for the 2018 season, set to begin for the 49ers when they report to training camp on July 25. “I expect for us to be the best defense in the league,” Witherspoon said. “I like to think we’ll be able to play 9-on-9, with myself and Sherman out there taking out two receivers. It’s a matter of coming together, playing fast and making those plays when they come.”


As it happens, two of the attendees of the cornerback academy, Sherman and Talib, find themselves on new teams in 2018. Throw in Malcolm Butler and you have three veterans older than 28, each of them in the upper echelon of one of the most important positions on the field in the modern NFL, coming to teams we can expect to be in the postseason in 2018. Sherman joins Witherspoon in San Francisco on a three-year deal worth up to $39 million; the Broncos traded Talib to the L.A. Rams for a fifth-round pick; and Butler signed with the Titans for five years and $61 million, with $30 million guaranteed.

In interviews with The MMQB, each shared his thoughts on the teams and people left behind, and his optimism for the future.

Beginning with Butler, it’s easy to see why he chose the Titans from a schematic standpoint. Forty-two-year-old first-year coach Mike Vrabel played linebacker for eight seasons in New England with Bill Belichick and in his first season in Tennessee will employ a 3-4 defense that will use many of the same concepts Belichick has mastered. It’s harder to understand why Butler chose to continue on the Belichick coaching tree after how bitterly things ended in New England, with the fifth-year corner benched in a Super Bowl loss to the Eagles for reasons that have yet to be fully explained,. (Butler, in an interview with SI TV, discussed his emotions during the game but didn’t go into detail on the reasons he didn’t play.)

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Still, Butler has nothing but kind words for Belichick and his style, which he sees echoed in Vrabel. Much of Belichick’s outsized influence in New England stems from his egalitarian treatment of star players, which is to say, he treats them like scrubs. (The MMQB’s Jenny Vrentas wrote a highly recommended breakdown of this dynamic.)

“It’s the Patriots system, one of the greatest systems in the NFL,” Butler says of the Titans. “You can tell Mike played for Belichick because you can see some of the similarities. They’re about winning the way New England is about winning.

“One thing I saw early: Mike will put you on blast. He don’t care who’s around. He’s going to say what’s right. He might be a bit looser than Bill Belichick, but they’re both great guys. A man caught a ball on me—honestly I don’t know his name yet—but Mike let me hear about it. ‘Don’t get stuck on top of the routes like that! Make a play!’ Nobody cares where you come from or what you make. Everyone’s equal. And you can tell from the head coach all the way down to the interns, everybody wants to win.”

If the Titans are going to repeat last season’s playoff berth, they’ll be doing so with a defense that shares a lot of the basics with New England and little else. The Texans with Vrabel as defensive coordinator played a healthy split of man and zone coverage, ranking 15th in the league in use of the former, according to data provided to The MMQB by Sports Info Solutions. The Patriots, on the other hand, ran the third-highest rate of man last season and 30th-highest rate of zone with Butler on the roster. A transition to a more zone-heavy approach could end up being bad news for Butler, who performed better in man (57.1% completion percentage) than zone (73.3%).

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In fact, Butler’s strongest moments in 2017 came when he was tasked with shadowing the other team's fastest receiver. When Butler was asked to follow DeSean Jackson, Robby Anderson, Emmanuel Sanders, Amari Cooper and Deonte Thompson (twice), quarterbacks completed only 48.8% of passes against him, despite the average depth of target against Butler jumping 2.6 yards from his average non-shadow assignment. “There’s something about being mano a mano,” Butler says, “You can’t say, this is all I’m going to be doing all game, because if they come out in no-huddle you may end up with a different assignment, but it really allows you to zero in and focus on that one job.”

In joining the Titans, Butler is essentially doing the opposite of what his former teammate Stephon Gilmore did in 2017, leaving the zone-heavy Bills for the man-heavy Patriots. It wasn’t a problem for Gilmore, who was consistent if not spectacular. Butler doesn’t sound particularly fazed. “I really can’t tell the difference yet,” he says. “No matter what it is, you’re gonna have to tackle somebody, cover somebody, defend somebody.”

In Los Angeles, Talib joins a team with big expectations for Year 2 under Sean McVay, who is 20 days older than his new All-Pro cornerback. The Rams can boast perhaps the biggest defensive talent haul of the offseason, having traded second- and fourth-round picks to Kansas City for cornerback Marcus Peters and a sixth-round pick. Talib and Peters join a defense that Talib is intimately familiar with; Rams DC Wade Phillips was Talib’s coordinator in Denver in 2015 (when the Broncos won the Super Bowl) and ’16. Phillips left for the same role in L.A. when Vance Joseph was hired as head coach. Under Phillips’s successor in Denver in 2017, Joe Woods, Talib says the Broncos ran the same scheme in its beta version.

“It was the same defense but we called less stuff,” Talib says. “Wade really had it wide open, and it wasn’t as open in 2017. It was like the beginning stages of Wade. It was new to this coach, so things were less disguised with fewer calls. If 40 calls were available to us in a game in 2016, we had half of that last season.”

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