Had the 2017 draft played out differently, Ahkello Witherspoon might have began his career as a member of the Seahawks.
Pete Carroll was a fan of the cornerback's game coming out of Colorado, and the Seahawks brought Witherspoon in for a pre-draft visit, but if Seattle was hoping to get him in the third round or later, they missed their chance with the 49ers selecting him with the second pick of the third round.
Four years later, however, Witherspoon is a Seahawk, having signed with Seattle in free agency earlier this spring, and he called the decision "kind of a no-brainer" given his familiarity with the organization, the style of Seattle's defense, and the city's relative proximity to his hometown of Sacramento.
"I had been in this environment, been around Coach Carroll, been around the coaches," he said. "Secondly was being close to home—I'm from Sacramento so being with the 49ers was a luxury. Lastly, the system. I think I can play ball in any system, but it's convenient to be in a Cover-3 system again around coaches who understand my length and what it can do to a game… It was kind of a no-brainer to me."
Said Carroll, "We've seen him play over the years—the last couple of years at the 'Niners—and we've seen the style of play that he brings. He's got the makeup, the speed, size, length, the kind of stuff that we liked in our guys. I've had my eye on him since we first saw him coming out of Colorado. He was available and we had the opportunity, so we pursued it."
And if Witherspoon had any hesitation about signing with Seattle, it went away after talking to Richard Sherman, his teammate in San Francisco the past three seasons.
"I called him about the decision, I wanted to know what the culture was like," Witherspoon said. "He said it would be a great fit, he was excited for me. Stuff that I had already heard, but I just wanted to confirm it from somebody that has been here. He was very helpful and encouraging for me to make this decision."
And now that he is in Seattle, Witherspoon is looking to show just how good he can be when healthy. Witherspoon's 49ers career was largely defined by inconsistent play—he was great in some games and benched in others—but he says a lot of that had to do with injuries, some of which were not known as he played through them.
"I think when I was healthy, I was the best corner in the league, and I'm not going settle for anything else," he said. "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, 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. And 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."
Asked to elaborate on those injuries, Witherspoon declined, but said, "I'm here now, I'm healthy, you're all going to see."
The Seahawks hope Witherspoon can be that type of player and take over a starting role, but he's coming in knowing he'll have to earn it in what has become a deep cornerback competition. The Seahawks lost Shaquill Griffin and Quinton Dunbar in free agency, but returning from 2020 are Tre Flowers, a starter for most of his three seasons in Seattle, D.J. Reed, who played very well after taking over a starting role, and Damarious Randall, a former first-round pick who is moving from safety back to corner, the position he played during his first three seasons in Green Bay. The Seahawks have also added to that group this offseason, not just by signing Witherspoon but also by selecting Tre Brown in the fourth round of this year's draft, by signing Pierre Desir, another veteran with significant starting experience.
But if Witherspoon does end up a starter he plans to show the type of player he can be when healthy and given an opportunity.
"There's a lot of confusion about my talent, and that is what comes with this business," he said. "I have the job and I have the role to straighten people up, and that's what I plan on doing."
Photos from the Seattle Seahawks' organized team activities held on Thursday, May 27 at Renton's Virginia Mason Athletic Center.