The LA Rams signed former 49er, Seahawk and Steeler Ahkello Witherspoon on June 29. While many teams passed him up because of his last year’s hamstring injury, the Rams took advantage.
Witherspoon, a 28-year-old cornerback, came off a rough 2022 season in which he struggled in the first four games before being placed on injured reserve due to a hamstring injury.
In the 2021 season, Witherspoon finished as the 17th-graded cornerback according to Pro Football Focus. Quarterbacks when targeting Witherspoon in 2021 had the 4th-lowest passer rating. Furthermore, Witherspoon hauled in three interceptions and only gave up one touchdown.
When going back to the 2020 season, Witherspoon finishes as PFF’s 5th graded cornerback in the league, he only gives up two touchdowns and misses just one tackle.
Witherspoon struggled early in his career in San Francisco but now at age 28 he is who he is, and that is a very good NFL starting cornerback.
The Rams are starting to see this come to fruition as well. Now, that Witherspoon is healthy, he’s been dominant in Raheem Morris’ defense. The 6-foot-2, 200 pound cornerback who ran a 4.45 at the combine, really has showcased those measurables in games this season.
It’s only three games, but Witherspoon is 3rd in the NFL in targeted passer rating with 22.0. Receivers are hauling in receptions when Witherspoon covers them only 38.5% of the time which is good for 2nd in the NFL.
QBs have a 22.0 passer rating when targeting #Rams CB Ahkello Witherspoon. This is seriously the pickup of the year by Les Snead. What a gem. Guy clearly had it just suffered a bad hamstring injury last year and ruined his season. pic.twitter.com/hIJ0jBQHod— JAKE ELLENBOGEN (@JKBOGEN) September 27, 2023
Witherspoon, on top of being a shutdown cornerback this season, has also the first and only turnover the Rams defense has registered this year after making a stellar one-handed interception to give the Rams a chance on Monday Night Football vs the Bengals.
Despite going against the likes of DK Metcalf, Tyler Lockett, Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, Ja'Marr Chase and Tee Higgins. The #Rams two corners Ahkello Witherspoon & Derion Kendrick are only behind MJ Emerson of the Browns in reception % allowed.— JAKE ELLENBOGEN (@JKBOGEN) September 27, 2023
(Minimum of 50% snaps played):… pic.twitter.com/o9nBaQZLyz
There is no doubt that he has stepped up his game and that has helped this team. The impressive part of it all is that he has done this facing two difficult variables.
The first, he has gone against three very high quality receiver rooms in the Seahawks (DK Metcalf, Tyler Lockett & Jaxon Smith Njigba), the 49ers (Brandon Aiyuk & Deebo Samuel) and the Bengals (Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins & Tyler Boyd) which is not at all an easy bunch to face.
The second, he has done all of this despite the pass rush only generating 49 pressures on the quarterback and seven sacks. When you do not have a pass rush upfront that is limiting the quarterback’s time to throw the ball, that means the secondary has to spend that much longer in coverage.
Those two variables prove that, while it’s early in the season, this is no fluke. Furthermore, it’s not as if Witherspoon has sat in zone all year either. He has played his fair share of man coverage with a more aggressive Morris defense this year. He’s a big reason why the Rams are the 7th passing defense in the league going into Week 4.
Witherspoon will go up against a receiver room with potential in Indianapolis but one that is nowhere near as talented as the last three the Rams have faced. We’ll see what he does moving forward but keep an eye on number 44. Joe Burrow certainly will be glad to not have to play him again this year.