The Pittsburgh Steelers acquired Akhello Witherspoon from the Seattle Seahawks for a fifth-round pick in the 2023 NFL draft.
Witherspoon, 26, signed a one-year, $4 million contract earlier this offseason in Seattle. It appeared the cornerback was set to be a key part of the defensive backfield for the Seahawks, but he quickly fell out of favor after struggling in the preseason.
From a financial standpoint, the deal is a bargain for Pittsburgh. Witherspoon will carry a $1.5 million cap charge for the 2021 NFL season while Seattle is forced to eat the remainder of his 2.5 million in bonus money. After releasing Henry Mondeaux to make room on the 53-man roster, the difference in cap charges is a measly $720,000.
At 6'3, 198 pounds with 33-inch-long arms, Witherspoon looks he was made in a lab for the cornerback position. Couple those numbers with his impressive testing scores (4.45 40 and 40.5-inch vert) and you understand why the team was intrigued by him.
The Steelers certainly have a fascination for those tall, long and lanky outside corners. In the past five years, they've invested in corners with similar builds: Artie Burns, Justin Layne and James Pierre all come to mind.
Witherspoon really makes his mark in coverage. Per SIS, In 189 snaps against the pass last year, the Colorado product allowed 12 catches on 24 targets, 155 yards and two touchdowns. Obviously, it was a limited sample size due to an early-season hamstring injury and limited playing time, but those numbers are impressive, nonetheless.
The tape shows a guy that's comfortable using his feet and length in press coverage at the line of scrimmage. He's also able to click and close well for a guy his size in off coverage, whether in man or zone. He possesses the speed to run steep for steep with some of the league's faster wide receivers.
He also improved as a tackler in 2020 after struggling in that department for the first three years of his career. SIS charted him with just 1 missed tackle last season after missing 22 in the 3 years prior.
After seeing his physical profile and overall coverage ability, it's difficult to understand why Witherspoon was even available for the taking. But after watching a little bit of his tape over the last several years, you start to understand why he's yet to establish himself as a premier player at the position. He's dealt with some inconsistency issues that really plagued him in San Francisco. There were times where he looked like an elite cover guy, but there were also times where his struggles led to him getting replaced in the lineup.
He fell into Kyle Shanahan's doghouse, which led them to play former Steelers' fifth-round pick, Brian Allen, over him.
So how does he fit into the Steelers' plan on defense?
Witherspoon will likely be behind James Pierre for that outside cornerback spot when the team goes to its nickel packages. Witherspoon isn't a candidate for slot work; his size and skill set are more made for the boundary. Pierre had a great training camp and a rock-solid preseason to finish off the summer, so it seems safe to say that he has the inside track for playing time early on.
If nothing else, Witherspoon can be viewed as insurance. Whether that be for injuries at the outside corner spot or if James Pierre would struggle out of the gate in his expanded role on defense. The buzz around Pierre has been exciting, but it's important to note that he's extremely inexperienced after logging just 27 snaps last season.
All in all, the trade was made to address the lack of depth at the position. With a 17-game regular season, Witherspoon will likely see crucial playing time at some point due to injuries. It's safe to say that he's an upgrade over their other options, such as Justin Layne.
With a player this gifted, it's certainly not out of the realm of possibility that he could force his way into the lineup, either. He's shown the flashes to be an exciting cover guy already but has been unable to string long stretches of impressive play together.
We will have to wait and see when he will have the opportunity to improve on that consistency.
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