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Penalties, belief in Ahkello Witherspoon led to Rashard Robinson trade

2016 fourth-round pick Rashard Robinson is heading to the Jets as the 49ers shift their focus onto cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon. James Lang/USA TODAY Sports

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The writing was on the wall for now former San Francisco 49ers cornerback Rashard Robinson when he was benched in favor of rookie Ahkello Witherspoon for last week's game against the Philadelphia Eagles.

Suddenly, a once promising young player who figured to be part of the Niners' long-term future, was now a backup. And, in a matter of days, he was moved to the New York Jets as San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan confirmed that Witherspoon had played well enough to retain the starting job moving forward.

"I thought he played a pretty good game," Shanahan said of Witherspoon on Monday. "He gave us a spark there, played good in his coverage, got us that interception, which I thought was a big play, and he gave up that go-route the next series, which wasn't good enough, but I think Ahkello can learn from him. I think he showed some good things to get excited about and I hope he continues to get better.”

Shanahan and the Niners backed up that hope with action on Tuesday when they dealt Robinson to the Jets in exchange for a fifth-round pick. That move flew under the radar as the 49ers welcomed quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to town but it should not go ignored given what it means for this season and beyond.

For Robinson, the trade means the end of an all-too-brief time with the Niners. Former San Francisco general manager Trent Baalke used a 2016 fourth-round pick on Robinson, hoping that his raw skills could be developed into a top-end corner.

For brief flashes, Robinson looked like he might deliver on that promise. He started six games and had 28 tackles as well as a game-clinching interception against the Los Angeles Rams during his rookie season. Even after offseason changes brought in Shanahan as coach and John Lynch as general manager, Robinson still appeared poised to play a big role in 2017.

During training camp and the offseason program, multiple players and coaches lauded Robinson for his competitiveness and fearless approach to playing the position. But while Robinson had plenty of physical gifts, he was thrust into a position as the team's top corner he simply wasn't ready to handle. Often matched against opponent's top receivers, Robinson developed a bad habit of clutching and grabbing, which turned into having penalties called against him on a regular basis.

Through the first eight weeks, Robinson was flagged 10 times, including eight accepted penalties, both totals ranking as second most in the NFL. Those continued struggles resulted in more opportunities for Witherspoon, who claimed the starting job against the Eagles, while Robinson played just 16 snaps and still managed to get two penalties on special teams.

Just last week, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh explained that Robinson needed to add physical strength and focus more on technique.

"He's still a young man," Saleh said. "He needs to gain strength at the top of the route. When they get to the top of the route there's jostling, there's pushing, there's shoving. It's just natural for it to happen on every single play. His personal strength, we'd love to see that improve. And that's getting in with [head strength and conditioning coach] Ray [Wright] too. Along with all the fundamentals and footwork, the eye placement, the hands. With all that, there's another step where he's got to get stronger at the top of the route so it doesn't look so violent, where it looks like they're just jostling for position. When it looks violent the referee just can't help but throw a flag on him. Even though he may not be fouling. It just looks like there's a big struggle going on and it just looks awkward in live situations. For Rashard, one of the biggest things he needs to improve is his overall strength, which I think will.”

Perhaps Robinson will bolster his strength with his new team, but the Niners have decided to focus their efforts on helping Witherspoon get better. The third-round pick in this year's draft came to the league with a reputation for playing sticky coverage but needing to get more physical as a tackler. Although Eagles receiver Alshon Jeffery got the better of Witherspoon for a touchdown last week, Witherspoon mostly held his own otherwise.

In fact, Pro Football Focus graded Witherspoon as the Niners' best player against Philadelphia, crediting him with allowing just three receptions on eight targets. It was enough for Shanahan to declare that Witherspoon will continue as the starter and create a path for Robinson's departure.

"I think he did well," Shanahan said. "I thought he competed. I know he gave up that go route, which obviously wasn't a good play but he had a big turning point in that game and gave us a chance with that interception. It seemed like he challenged guys.. From what I saw, I was pleased."