After the 49ers maneuvered in the first round to pick up two of the top three players on their draft board, the club had to wait until the second pick of the third round to make another selection.
The addition of Colorado cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon, a Sacramento native, was not viewed with the same widespread applause as the 49ers’ first-round picks of Stanford defensive lineman Solomon Thomas and Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster.
In sizing up Witherspoon, one AFC scout told NBC Sports Bay Area, “He won’t hit anyone.”
That’s a critique Witherspoon heard repeatedly in the run-up to the NFL draft. Even the man who drafted him – a former hard-hitting safety who was a finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame – admits Witherspoon's lack of physical play was a concern.
“It needs to improve,” 49ers general manager John Lynch said of Witherspoon. “It’s something that we raised to him and we didn’t hide from it. I said this and showed him the film, ‘That bothers me, help me out here,’ and he was aware that it does need to improve and (he’s) committed to making it improve.”
Witherspoon, who signed the mandatory four-year contract with the 49ers on Friday, is still a football neophyte. He played four sports as a senior at Christian Brothers High. He was a late bloomer in football due mainly to his stature. By the time he played as a freshman at Sacramento City College, he had grown seven inches in 16 months and was rewarded with a scholarship to Colorado.
“It’s something I need to be more consistent with,” Witherspoon said. “Every team I spoke to said they’ve seen it in spots in my game, and just bring it all the time.
"It’s just experience. He (Lynch) pulled up clips of me doing it well and doing it poorly. And he showed me, ‘This is kind of what’s encouraging to me is that it’s not a fear thing. You’re willing to do it.’
“It’s just new experience. I can’t explain it. When you’re out there on the football field, seeing two guards pull, it’s something new that you’re seeing. Instead of diagnosing it, you’re just going and blowing it up. And that’s kind of what he told me he was going to have me come in and do – just keep exposing myself to new situations.”
The 49ers were clearly drawn to Witherspoon’s impressive physical traits. At 6 foot 3, 198 pounds, Witherspoon has drawn comparisons to Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.45 seconds and posted a vertical leap of 40.5 inches.
He credits his experience as a high-level soccer outside midfielder to develop the kind of footwork needed to play cornerback at a high level; his experience as an outfielder in baseball helps him tracking the ball; and basketball helped him hone short-area quickness and agility.
Drills at the NFL scouting combine are not the only place Witherspoon posts impressive scores. He graduated high school with a 4.4 grade-point average
Witherspoon has nine credits remaining to complete his biology degree from Colorado. He expects to finish his undergraduate degree within the next two offseasons, he said. Witherspoon said he plans to go to medical school whenever his professional football career is over.
“It’s regardless,” Witherspoon said. “Yeah, med school is happening, no doubt, whether it (takes) a year or 12. This is my passion. I’ve always been interested in how things work. . . I want to be a surgeon. I don’t know what area of surgery, but that’s my goal.”