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Now a starter, Ahkello Witherspoon's development critical to 49ers' future

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- In the span of 1:05 in last week's game against the Philadelphia Eagles, San Francisco 49ers rookie Ahkello Witherspoon found himself on both ends of the spectrum that goes with playing cornerback in the NFL.

With just under five minutes left in the third quarter, Witherspoon intercepted Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz. It was Witherspoon's first career pick, and it set the Niners up for their lone touchdown. Witherspoon didn't get much time to bask in his achievement.

Three plays after the 49ers cashed in his interception for a touchdown, Wentz challenged Witherspoon with a deep pass down the right sideline intended for wideout Alshon Jeffery. Jeffery elevated over Witherspoon, wrested the ball away and took it into the end zone for a 53-yard touchdown pass that quelled any momentum the Niners had just gained.

On the play, Witherspoon said he went to look back for the ball and thought it had been thrown long. By the time he realized it was thrown to the back shoulder, it was too late.

"[I'll] try and go for two picks next time," Witherspoon said. "On that play specifically, I could have intercepted it, and that's kind of the part I beat myself on is not trusting myself, but that's one of the things I did learn is stay in that confident mindset. On that one, I kind of second-guessed myself, and once you do that, you lose at the corner position, as we saw. To have success, you have to believe in yourself at all times. That's just one thing I learned from that game is stay on the same mindset and continue to dominate mentally."

Lessons like that are sure to come in abundance over the season's final eight games. Although Witherspoon had that one costly miscue, he fared quite well in his first start replacing Rashard Robinson in the lineup. Pro Football Focus graded Witherspoon as the best player on the field for the 49ers last week, and he took home the third-highest grade among all the corners in the league for Week 8.

Witherspoon's emergence over the past few weeks has been strong enough that the Niners felt comfortable trading Robinson for a fifth-round pick before Tuesday's deadline.

"Yeah, that definitely makes it a lot easier," Shanahan said. "We thought he played well. Hoping he gets better as this goes. Knowing that he was starting definitely makes it easier. There's still a depth issue there, but I'm worried about depth at all positions -- not just that position. Depth is an issue everywhere at this time of year. That's just a risk you have to take if you think you can help your team in the future."

The Niners' hope that Witherspoon can help them in the future is one of the most important, if underrated, storylines for the team over the season's final half. One way or the other, the Niners are going to need help at cornerback in the offseason, but Witherspoon has a chance to determine just how much help they'll need.

As it stands, the 49ers have nickel cornerback K'Waun Williams and Witherspoon under contract. Fellow outside starting cornerback Dontae Johnson is set to be an unrestricted free agent, as is veteran Leon Hall.

No matter what happens, the Niners are going to be in the market for more corners. But how well Witherspoon does for the rest of the season will help determine just how much money and/or draft capital they must invest at the position. If Witherspoon's rate of development since he arrived as a third-round pick from Colorado continues, that need might not be as big as it currently looks.

Still something of a neophyte -- he didn't letter in football until his senior year of high school -- Witherspoon believes he is the type of player who is learning and getting better every time he is on the field. Witherspoon said his focus is just trying to improve every day and every week while ignoring what he can't control.

The biggest adjustment, according to Witherspoon, was making sure he was focused on every single snap, something he didn't do in the past because he was almost always a better athlete than the guy across from him.

"At this level, there's no time for mental lapse," Witherspoon said. "That's where it starts. The physical, giving up catches, it's just mentally first, you lose mentally then lose. That's the biggest thing is just putting myself in position physically at all times by having the mental presence on each rep."

Witherspoon has also progressed in tackling, an issue that was the biggest mark against him entering the draft. He said he has a better understanding of how to track runners, which has allowed him to be more consistent. Although he hasn't gained weight, he has added muscle.

Those were all things Witherspoon had plenty of time to work on as a healthy inactive over the season's first month. But Witherspoon said he didn't let not playing bother him.

"My mindset, I used those four weeks as like another minicamp," Witherspoon said. "I played better those four weeks than I did throughout training camp, coming into the season. So those four weeks, the conversations that I had with my DB coach were just focused on getting better. Don't use it as a time off, and I didn't know what the ultimatum was going to be, but once again, just with that focus, you can see it will take you places."

It took Witherspoon into planned rotation at cornerback against Indianapolis in Week 5, though that was cast aside when Witherspoon suffered a concussion after playing six snaps. The rotation resumed in subsequent weeks against Washington and Dallas before culminating in his start against the Eagles.

It's a job Shanahan has said will remain in Witherspoon's possession, presumably for the rest of the season. Whether he can do enough to nail down that spot beyond this season will go a long way in shaping the 49ers' offseason priorities.