This past week in Indianapolis provided a great opportunity to look forward to a fresh crop of prospects who could shape the future of the San Francisco 49ers. It also served as a chance to reflect on John Lynch's first draft class as an NFL general manager.
The 49ers selected 10 players in the 2017 NFL Draft and added a handful of undrafted free agents. So out of all those rookies, which one really helped themselves at the NFL Combine?
Lynch named Ahkello Witherspoon and referenced the team's 15-minute interview with the Colorado cornerback prospect. The 49ers loved Witherspoon's length, athleticism and footwork, but there was one sizeable question mark.
"We really liked Ahkello, but, I'm not afraid to say it because it's been out there publicly, one of the questions was his physicality," Lynch said candidly during a sit-down interview with 49ers Studios. "We watched a lot of plays where he didn't demonstrate it. … The truth is, some people just don't like hitting people."
The 49ers didn't pull punches during the interview. Defensive backs coach Jeff Hafley queued up several examples on film where Witherspoon avoided contact. The red flag wasn't a deal breaker in and of itself. To describe Witherspoon as slender would have been overselling his body composition. He had yet to fill out his lanky 6-foot-3 frame having only begun playing football as a senior in high school.
But while a beefed up diet and plenty of time in the gym could add meat to his bones, you can't teach mindset. The 49ers had to be sure Witherspoon had the mental makeup to overcome his deficiencies as a college player.
"He answered very forthright and very honest," Lynch said. "We talked through it. We tried to address it head on (with him). We said, 'Hey, is this something you're willing to address.'"
Witherspoon's learning curve was steep. Learning to hit as a rookie in the NFL is a tall task, and the corner undeniably took his lumps. Most notably, Witherspoon was the nail to Pierre Garçon's hammer on a goal line collision during training camp that you undoubtedly read about back in August.
He spent the first four weeks of the regular season as a gameday inactive. It was almost an extra month of training camp for Witherspoon. But he came around as the year wore on. Witherspoon made his NFL debut in Week 5 against the Indianapolis Colts. He grabbed his first interception in Week 8 against the Philadelphia Eagles. Two days later, San Francisco shipped Rashard Robinson to the New York Jets at the trade deadline. From then on, Witherspoon was the 49ers No. 1 corner. He showed off his improved physicality in Week 9 by planting Arizona Cardinals running back Adrian Peterson into the Levi's® Stadium grass.
When it was all said and done, Witherspoon appeared in 12 games (nine starts) and posted 32 tackles, two interceptions and one forced fumble as a rookie. He's expected to be a starter in 2018 regardless of who the 49ers add this offseason.
"We saw in camp, (his physicality wasn't a strength early) but by the end he was whacking people," Lynch said. "All his talent came to the forefront. That's an example of a time when we really learned something and got comfortable with a player in those 15 minutes."