Ahkello Witherspoon was a priority hire, the Seahawks offering $4 million guaranteed on a one-year deal at the start of the NFL’s free agency period in March. He quickly accepted. The one-time rival at San Francisco was Seattle’s first choice to fill the left cornerback position vacated by Shaquill Griffin, who received from Jacksonville a three-year deal worth up to $40 million that the Seahawks didn’t want to pay.
Apparently, the Seahawks’ judgment at the corner was another misread, as it was with the veteran free agent signings of Quinton Dunbar in 2020 and Cary Williams in 2015, neither of whom made it through a full season.
Witherspoon, who lost the starting job in preseason to someone who barely played because of injury, D.J. Reed, was traded Friday to the Pittsburgh Steelers for a fifth-round choice in the 2023 draft.
The surprising swap was the latest turn in the tumult at the second-most important position in coach Pete Carroll’s defense.
Prior to the trade, the Seahawks this week acquired former Huskies star and fifth-year vet Sidney Jones from Jacksonville for a sixth-round pick in 2022, then picked up another cornerback, rookie Nigel Warrior, who was cut by Baltimore after training camp.
They also added CB Michael Jackson, a fifth-round pick of the Cowboys in 2019, to the 16-man practice squad, and earlier traded with Houston for John Reid, who was quickly cut and also added to the practice squad. The Seahawks also drafted in the fourth round Tre Brown, who is recovering from a knee sprain. Whether he’ll be ready for the Sept. 12 opener in Indianapolis isn’t known.
A frenzy, to say the least, for Carroll, who is persnickety when it comes to corner play.
A fellow given to occasional hyperbole, he was straight up at his Monday presser when he said, “You’ll see a couple of other things that happen there too.”
As it stands at the moment, Reed, who was figured to be a lock at right cornerback, has been moved to the left, and Tre Flowers, after a good camp, has been advanced to start on the right side, although Carroll didn’t directly say so. Flowers started seven games a year ago before being supplanted by Reed.
“His consistency and really just making plays,” Carroll said Wednesday. “He made plays all camp. In zone and man-to-man, he’s much more comfortable making plays on the ball, which was great to see.”
Carroll said Jones has played both positions in the NFL.
UW coach Jimmy Lake “did a good job with him,” he said of the two-time all-Pac-12 player taken 43rd in the 2017 draft by the Eagles. “He coached the heck out of him, it was obvious. He’s a complete football player. We’ve known him for a long time, of course, being here. He’s aggressive, he’s very savvy, a really good technician, a really smart, all-around athlete. He’s got good ball skills.
“We really have a lot of information on him, knowing the coaches that have coached him. We feel really fortunate to get him to come in here and let him have a chance to compete. Sidney is not coming in here to stand around.”
The dumping of Witherspoon, a third-round pick out of Colorado in 2017, will cost the Seahawks $2.5 million, the amount of his signing bonus, spread over 2021 and 2022, the latter a void year, according to Overthecap.com. This season, they will save his salary of $1.5 million against the cap. Before the trade, the Seahawks had $7.1 million in cap space, about in the middle of the league.
When Witherspoon, 6-3 and 194 pounds, met Seattle media in May, he wasn’t shy about his abilities: “I think when I was healthy, I was the best corner in the league. And I’m not going to settle for anything else.”
But in his four years with San Francisco, he often was not healthy, nor consistent in his play. In 2020, he played in 11 games, starting four, and took 32 percent of the snaps.
Asked Aug. 11 what it takes to be the NFL’s best corner, he said, “Technique, discipline, consistency, effort,
tackling, hitting catching footballs, poking balls out, can I go on? It takes everything.”
Asked about where he could improve, he said, “Getting the football out when receivers catch the ball. That’s one of the things that Pete has stressed to me. In this league, they’re so good at running and catching, but the play is not over when they do receive the football. You always have an opportunity to punch it out.”
Carroll wasn’t available to media Friday, but apparently Witherspoon failed to check one or more of his own boxes, and found himself punched out of Seattle.