The Indianapolis Colts enter the 2021 NFL Free Agency period with quite a few needs. While quarterback, left tackle, and defensive end are the primary needs, the Colts also have to address cornerback with their best two players from this past year being free agents. While veteran depth corner T.J Carrie could return, it is less clear if Xavier Rhodes will be back. While it shouldn’t be ruled out, people I have talked to have called it unlikely with Rhodes wanting a big payday and his defensive backs coach Jonathan Gannon now out in Philadelphia as the Defensive Coordinator.
With the uncertainty around the position and the Colts needing a starting caliber player now, free agency seems to be the best way to attack this position of need. There are several players on the market who fit the Colts’ prototype but one of the most intriguing options is Ahkello Witherspoon from the 49ers. Today we are going to look at the background of this talented cornerback and see exactly why he could fit the Colts.
Ahkello Witherspoon was one of my all-time favorite draft prospects who came out in the 2017 NFL Draft. He was a bit raw and young (only 21 when he was drafted) but posted some absolutely elite numbers for a corner at the NFL Combine. He tested as a top 20 athlete since 1999 per RAS numbers. He also fits the Colts’ want and desire for corners who are over 6’0” and have arm length above 32 inches.
Ups and Downs in San Francisco
Witherspoon’s career in San Fran was a bit bumpy as it was marred by peaks of extreme highs and lows. His rookie year was one of his best seasons as he hit career highs in interceptions and pass breakups. The next two seasons however were the opposite as he accumulated 13 penalties in the two seasons and even ended up being benched a few times due to poor play.
He ended this past year on one of his best highs, however. Despite being limited to just 11 games in 2020, he returned for the final three games of the year and played the best ball of his career. He graded out as the third-best cornerback in the NFL over that three game span according to Pro Football Focus while allowing an opposing passer rating of just 56.7 when targeted.
Improvements in Tackling
The biggest concern I had in his game coming out of college was his lack of physicality and struggles as a tackler in the open field. Even before I started covering the Colts, where corner tackling ability is one of the biggest traits they look for, I still was concerned because it was that poor. During his two down years in 2018 and 2019, that concern manifested itself into a major concern in the NFL as well. He totaled 61 tackles over those two years but also had 17 missed tackles to go along with it. This year, however, seemed to be a big improvement, as he missed just one tackle compared to having 18 on the season. He also had a career high of eight stops on the season.
While I don’t think that I could confidently call tackling or physicality a strength of his game, I do feel more confident than I did prior to this season. From watching film, it was easy to see a more physical player with much better technique in the open field. I do think, with the way he played last year, that he could survive as an outside corner in the Colts heavy cover two-type scheme.
Ahkello Witherspoon was one of my all time favorite draft prospects. I loved the way he moved for a bigger corner and thought his potential was sky high. My biggest fear though was his physicality and tackling out of Colorado..— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) February 1, 2021
Look at my boy now! He can actually hit! pic.twitter.com/5sCYVUXUYS
Stud in Press Coverage
The best thing about having the length and athleticism that Witherspoon has is that he can confidently line up with any type of athletic freak in the NFL. An issue with Colts’ corners over the past few seasons, even including Xavier Rhodes, is that lack of athleticism combined with the size. Players like Rhodes and Pierre Desir and Rock Ya-Sin have that size but are stiff and get beat off the line of scrimmage way too easily as a result.
That isn’t an issue with Witherspoon who has the length and athleticism to dominate at the line of scrimmage. The 49ers were a heavy press coverage team based on the games I watched and Witherspoon was able to thrive in this. The most interesting part was I saw him find success in multiple types of press. He utilized the Seahawks type of step-kick (which is more of a bully type of press technique) while also using motor mirror and just mirror techniques as well. The ability to switch up techniques and still have success is a valuable trait in press, as receivers can’t develop a plan to beat you if they don’t know what to expect.
That Length and Athleticism...
I know I keep bringing it up but Witherspoon is a freak of an athlete and the Colts really need that in their secondary. Outside of Kenny Moore II, who has easily been their best secondary player since 2018, the Colts don’t have any upper-echelon athletes in their defensive backfield. While there is obviously more to playing defensive back in the NFL than being an elite athlete, having a good player with that ability would be a huge addition.
It is easy to see these two traits pop up on film for Witherspoon. His length is huge when he is out of position down the field as he can easily recover and make up for that positioning with his long arms getting into passing lanes. As for his athleticism, he was actually a soccer player growing up and that is easy to see on the field. He can mirror wide receiver steps with ease and is very fluid and natural in his movements.
The way Witherspoon moves + his length... Need him in Indy this offseason lol pic.twitter.com/IMA9LacoRm— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) February 1, 2021
The Colts are going to have to do something at cornerback this offseason with Xavier Rhodes unlikely to return in free agency. While there are a few good options out there (that I will also cover in articles like this) I think Witherspoon is my top option. At just 25 years old, coming off one of his better stretches in his career, this is the time to bring in a talented cornerback on the market for the Colts’ scheme.
It is hard to truly gauge what the market will be like for Witherspoon this offseason. There won’t be many buyers in free agency this year due to cap restraints and he hasn’t exactly had the most productive career since entering the league. If the Colts can get him for a small deal like 2 years for 12 million or something like that, it would be a huge win. There is still a lot of time before free agency starts but I fully expect Witherspoon to be on Ballard’s watch list come March 17th.