There may be no one position in the NFL in which confidence is more essential to perform your job than is that of cornerback. It’s the only position where the stakes are so clearly high on any given snap. You are the man who is responsible for not allowing the wide receiver to get behind you, and these days, that is happening more than ever.
Because of this reason, I will never find myself surprised by a cornerback talking himself up beyond what might be generally perceived as reasonable. You kind of have to believe that you actually are the best at what you do, or at least very close to it, whether the stats show it or not.
Fortunately, perhaps, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Ahkello Witherspoon is just one such cornerback. The sixth-year veteran, recently appearing on the Getcha Popcorn podcast with Hall of Fame wide receiver Terrell Owens, was asked to name his top five cornerbacks in the NFL right now—and he just so happened to make his own list, in no specific order, as he said.
“We’ll go myself, [Jalen] Ramsey; I like [Marshon] Lattimore; I like J.C. Jackson; I like Xavien Howard”, he offered up as his top five cornerbacks in the league. “He touches a lot of footballs—you can’t argue with that”.
For the record, I’m totally on board with Witherspoon showing this confidence in his game. As I said earlier, you have to be supremely confident to excel at the cornerback position. It’s probably best if you believe that you’ve never truly lost a one-on-one rep without some mitigating factor outside of your control, or at least not without a lesson learned to ensure you won’t lose that same rep again.
Also, he was specifically told that he could put himself on the list, so that makes it harder to leave yourself off of it when you have the query framed that way. It makes you look like you don’t believe in yourself if you don’t. Context is important. But nevertheless, he said it.
A former 66th-overall draft pick out of Colorado with 6’2” height with a solid athletic profile, even if lacking elite speed, Witherspoon is certainly physically gifted. He has had an up-and-down career as a professional, however, having been shifted in and out of starting roles.
He spent his first four seasons with the team that drafted him the San Francisco 49ers, before signing a one-year, $4 million contract with the Seattle Seahawks in 2021. They traded him to the Steelers shortly before the regular season began in exchange for a fifth-round draft pick.
Pittsburgh was in no rush to get him on the field, and in fact was only active for one game in the first half of the season. After a significant foot injury suffered by Joe Haden, however, and a series of struggles by James Pierre, they did call upon the veteran, who would log 364 of his 268 defensive snaps in the final eight weeks.
In that relatively short span of playing time, he recorded three interceptions, which was a new career-high, and nine passes defensed, which also matched his previous best. All credit to him, he was playing very good ball, and the best of his career, down the stretch last season.
Which is why the Steelers re-signed him and allowed Haden to walk, though they have still given themselves options. They still have Cameron Sutton returning for his sixth season in Pittsburgh, and to them they added Levi Wallace, coming over from Buffalo, on a matching two-year, $8 million contract Witherspoon also signed.
The exact playing time hasn’t been worked out yet, but the opportunity sits before him to live up to his own hype. There’s a pretty good chance he could end up being the Steelers’ number one cornerback in coverage in 2022. If he wants to be on anybody’s list of top five cornerbacks whose last name isn’t Witherspoon, he had better get to work.