RENTON, WA - Unlike most NFL teams, as promised in a prior statement through the NFL Players Association, the vast majority of the Seahawks veterans did not report for the start of voluntary organized team activities. Per coach Pete Carroll, less than 40 players have participated in on-field work this week, with stars such as Russell Wilson training with teammates elsewhere.
But while most players likely won't return until mandatory minicamp in mid-June, fifth-year cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon has taken a different approach.
Aiming to get off to a fast start with his new team, Witherspoon has been working out at Seattle's team facility for the past two months since signing as a free agent back in March. Though he hasn't been able to take part in on-field drills yet as he works back from a minor knee procedure, he's already "reaping the benefits" of his decision to report early, developing a rapport with Carroll and Seattle's coaching staff.
"Just to be around and have my face be seen every day, talk football with coach Carroll, with my DB coach, coach Dre [Andre Curtis], and just started getting working on the field as well," Witherspoon said when asked about the advantages of arriving at the facility early. "Just kind of talking ball in front of them and just hearing the way they coach and building those relationships with Ken Norton is stuff that you can't make up or can't get it when you're at home just being on Zoom. So it's been it's been very helpful."
Like many college players in the mid-2010s, Witherspoon enjoyed watching Seattle's famous "Legion of Boom" secondary dominate opponents on Sundays. He admired how the vaunted group led by Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman, and Kam Chancellor played with unrivaled passion and energy, inspiring others around them to elevate their respective games on one of the best defenses in NFL history.
Following a superb senior season at Colorado, the Seahawks met with the athletic 6-foot-3 Witherspoon prior to the 2017 NFL Draft and expressed interest throughout the pre-draft process. They quickly emerged as his dream destination, as he wanted to emulate his idols in a defensive scheme that fit his strengths and carve out a legacy of his own starring in the Pacific Northwest.
"If you asked me where I wanted to go, [it was] Seattle, just to kind of replicate that to the best of my ability, as well as the technical aspect and the football savvy that all of them had and the the approach to the game," Witherspoon told reporters.
But before Seattle had a chance to select Witherspoon, San Francisco snagged him early in the third round at No. 66 overall. 24 picks later, the Seahawks used their own third round pick on UCF standout Shaquill Griffin, grabbing another cornerback who was high on their draft board.
Ironically, Witherspoon did eventually team up with Sherman, who promptly crossed enemy lines and joined the 49ers after being released by the Seahawks in March 2018. The two struck a close relationship playing the past three seasons together, with the veteran taking the youngster under his wing as he endured plenty of ups and downs transitioning to the league.
Upon his arrival, Witherspoon bounced in and out of the 49ers starting lineup, with constant injuries hindering his development. He missed the final two games of the 2018 season with a knee injury, sat out six games in 2019 due to a foot issue, and only appeared in a grand total of eight games last season dealing with a concussion along with hamstring and calf injuries.
When close to 100 percent, however, Witherspoon confidently proclaimed himself "the best corner in the league," ripping a page out of Sherman's book in his first meeting with Seattle media. Without a Pro Bowl or All-Pro selection on his resume, such a declaration may seem ludicrous, but towards the tail end of the 2020 season, he played as well as any cornerback in the game.
Reclaiming his starting job in the second half for an injury-ravaged defense, Witherspoon received a stellar 80.9 coverage grade from Pro Football Focus last season, which ranked fourth among qualified cornerbacks behind only Jaire Alexander, Xavien Howard, and Bryce Callahan. He also made noticeable strides as a tackler, earning an 80.2 overall grade in that category, which ranked fifth among players at the position.
"I had two bad injuries that no one really knows about or cares about. And it's not my place to make people care. But you go out there, you fight, you push through," Witherspoon said. "And if you're not at the best of your ability in this league and 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. 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."
Having followed Witherspoon closely dating back to his collegiate days, Carroll was able to witness the young cornerback at his best in the season finale last January. Primarily engaged against All-Pro receiver DK Metcalf in coverage, though he was charged with giving up a touchdown to Tyler Lockett, he allowed just two receptions on six targets and produced a pair of pass breakups.
"We've seen him play over the years, in the last couple of years with the Niners and we've seen the style of play that he brings. He's got he's got the make up speed, size, length, the kind of stuff that we like in our guys," Carroll said when asked why Witherspoon appealed to the Seahawks. "I've always had my eye on him since we first saw him coming out of Colorado. And we, you know, we had the opportunity [to sign him] and so we pursued it."
Coming off a strong finish to the 2020 season, Witherspoon became an unrestricted free agent in March. While returning to San Francisco remained on the table and other teams expressed interest, once Seattle re-emerged as a suitor for his services, his choice became an obvious one. With the perfect defensive scheme for his skill set and an ideal location remaining on the west coast, it was a "no brainer."
Before making his final decision, Witherspoon reached out to Sherman to ask about Carroll and what to expect playing for the Seahawks. The veteran corner recommended the move, calling it a "great fit" for the next step in his career. Shortly after, he put pen to paper signing a one-year contract to jump from one division rival to another.
"He was excited for me. Just very simple stuff, just stuff that I kind of have already heard. But I just wanted to confirm it from somebody that's been here. He was very helpful and just encouraging for me to make this decision."
Already closing in on returning to the field, Witherspoon should be fully recovered in time for the start of Seattle's training camp, where he will be challenged daily covering Metcalf, Lockett, and incoming rookie D'Wayne Eskridge. On a one-year "prove it" deal, he will battle against the likes of D.J. Reed, Tre Flowers, and fourth-round pick Tre Brown in what should make for an entertaining competition in August.
As camp slowly approaches, Witherspoon's bold comments on Thursday will inevitably put a target on his back. But he's certainty not lacking in the swagger department and after four turbulent seasons with the 49ers, he's eager to prove he can walk the walk, lock up a starting spot in the secondary, and emerge as a game changer for the Seahawks defensively.
“I think there’s a lot of confusion about my talent. That is what comes with this business. I have the job, and I have the role to straighten people up. That’s what I plan on doing.”