Over Labor Day weekend, the Pittsburgh Steelers continued to surprise fans and analysts alike with their flurry of aggressive offseason moves by trading a 2023 fifth-round selection to acquire Seahawks CB Ahkello Witherspoon. While many expected Pittsburgh to be more in the market for a nickel corner that could predominately play in the slot after losing Mike Hilton to the Cincinnati Bengals in free agency, the move to acquire Witherspoon made sense, providing the secondary with another proven veteran who has provided quality play as a starting cornerback for the San Francisco 49ers opposite of Richard Sherman for a defense that not too long ago was competing for a Super Bowl.
The question was raised whether or not the acquisition of Witherspoon would potentially not only cost the Steelers their 2023 fifth-round selection they sent to the Seahawks to acquire him, but also a compensatory fifth-round pick they expected to get in return for OL Matt Feiler signing with the Los Angeles Chargers in free agency this past March. Play time, statistical thresholds, and other variables will likely factor into whether or not Pittsburgh does in-fact negate to comp pick they expected for Feiler due to the acquisition of Witherspoon, but if I were a betting man, I would wager GM Kevin Colbert is well aware of the ramifications of the move he just pulled off.
Colbert referenced earlier this offseason that they team was ok with trading a 2022 fourth-round pick in order to move up in the 2021 NFL Draft to select DL Isaiahh Loudermilk because they knew they were likely to receive comp picks to replace that pick based on their offseason losses. Therefore, I think it’s safe to say that Colbert and the front office are aware to an extent of how the comp pick formula works, as they have relied on it in the past to replenish their draft classes after trading picks away.
Even if Witherspoon ends up costing the Steelers two fifth-round selections, do you think that he would simply be a one-year rental for that price? I mean, it’s possible. We saw Colbert trade a fifth-rounder for LB Avery Williamson last season for him to only suit up a handful of games with the team and then be cast off to the street and left unsigned in free agency.
This could be the case with Witherspoon as well, but given the potential bind this trade puts the Steelers’ future draft classes in, the position of need Witherspoon plays at CB and its outlook past 2021, and the age and physical makeup Witherspoon provides the Steelers secondary, I could see this as a savvy long-term play by Colbert just as much as a depth play this season. Witherspoon’s biggest knocks so far in the NFL is his durability and physicality as a tackler. He hasn’t played a full season since entering the league back in 2017 and his tackling was something he struggled with coming out of the University of Colorado.
However, after watching some tape on Witherspoon from the last couple of seasons and hearing Alex Kozora acknowledge Witherspoon’s effort and play as a tackler has improved, that can be a positive sign. He also can tend to struggle with quick route runners who can get an inside release on him from time-to-time, but a cornerback of his length and size isn’t expected to be the most fluid mover in space.
This brings us to what Witherspoon does well and provides the Steelers defense. He is that tall, long corner that Colbert has recently taking a liking to, given the draft investment of former third-round pick Justin Layne and James Pierre earning a role as a UDFA. Witherspoon is a solid press man corner that tested well back at the 2017 NFL Combine, running a 4.45 40, jumping 40.5 inches in the vert, nearly 10.6 in the broad, and running a 4.13 20yd shuttle while standing 6’3, 198lb with 33” arms and 9 7/8” hands.
As the great Dave Bryan would say, that is an impressive athlete from a RAS Score perspective. Clearly, Colbert and company thought the same when Witherspoon became available for trade. His speed, length, and size minimize passing lanes down the field and allows him to better contest combative catches with bigger receivers on the outside. He has been matched up on TEs in the past, covering them in the slot as well as on the boundary, having the size to challenge their catch radius. He is a good fit for the man-heavy system that Pittsburgh has shifted to over the years, being able to use his traits effectively when tasked with one-on-one coverage on the outside.
So, this raises the question, “Why did Pittsburgh find it imperative to trade potentially two fifth-rounders for Ahkello Witherspoon?” Personally, I think the answer is two-fold. While James Pierre has had a great training camp, he has had his warts in coverage during the first few preseason games. He is a talented, physical defender, but we also have to realize that he is a second-year player that went undrafted, thus he may not be ready to take on the likes of Odell Beckham Jr., Tee Higgins, etc on a regular basis.
Witherspoon has 33 starts under his belt and has faced plenty of tough competition on the outside. While this can be seen as a depth move to add another capable defender to push Justin Layne for playing time, I do think Witherspoon pushes Pierre as well for starting snaps on the outside when he is fully caught up on the playbook.
Another possibility I have considered in regards of the acquisition of Witherspoon is Colbert looking to the future as well as this season. While Colbert likes to do everything, he can to compete for the season at-hand, he doesn’t like to compromise the team’s ability to compete in future seasons, keeping a long-term view of the situation in mind when making decisions.
Knowing this, trading for a 26-year old CB who has played at a high level in the league when healthy below market value due to his 2020 season seems like a calculated risk by Colbert at a potential long-term solution at outside CB. Joe Haden is in the last year of his deal and has had his agent state that he will test free agency next offseason if he didn’t receive a contract extension. Colbert likely isn’t interested in giving a lucrative extension to a 32-year old CB before seeing how he plays this season, and quite possibly gave himself some assurance by trading for Witherspoon as a potential Haden replace in 2022 instead of inking him to a new deal at age 33.
“What about James Pierre and Cam Sutton? Can’t they start on the outside too?”
Yes, then can, but hear me out. For months, we at Steelers Depot have been saying that Pittsburgh should roll with Haden and Pierre outside and Sutton in the slot in their nickel and dime defensive packages. Now, instead of having Haden on the outside, put Witherspoon in that spot. Pittsburgh would have two long, press man defenders along with Swiss Army Knife DB Cam Sutton in the slot. This sounds like a good potential CB room to me if I were to look forward.
A lot of things have to play out for this whole situation to become clearer. Does Witherspoon play well in 2021 and is he willing to re-sign with Pittsburgh this offseason? Does James Pierre break out and force himself to play over Witherspoon? Can Cam Sutton hold his own on the outside or is he better suited for slot duties moving forward? Is Joe Haden willing to take a hometown discount to stay and finish his career in Pittsburgh, making it financially feasible to re-sign him this offseason? There are a lot of different ways this cornerback room can go, but Kevin Colbert did the right thing by providing options for this team to turn to, both in 2021 and potentially in the future.
What are your thoughts on the trade for Ahkello Witherspoon? Was this a one-year rental in your mind, or could Witherspoon provide some long-term value to Pittsburgh? Could this threaten the chances of Joe Haden being retained past 2021? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below and thanks again for reading!