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Devon Witherspoon: Why Draft?
Seahawks shock world with #5 pick? The reasons for it are hitting us in the face: Seaside Joe 1501
If you’re like me, you will start this article thinking, “Do I really want the Seahawks to use their first pick on a cornerback?” but by the end you’ll know that Devon Witherspoon is not a cornerback. He’s an attitude change that Seattle desperately needs and that Pete Carroll tends to gravitate towards.
And if Carroll is willing to adjust his position on signing first wave outside free agents like Dre’Mont Jones and he’s open to keeping Geno Smith on a deal worth up to $105 million, then maybe 2023 is the year that the Seattle Seahawks actually pick a corner in the top-90. Or the top-5.
Because if there’s a single player in the draft who exemplifies the character, competitiveness, and toughness that’s been missing from the Seahawks defense since Kam Chancellor retired, he is Illinois cornerback Devon Witherspoon. Though Witherspoon doesn’t have the magical 32” arm length and despite Seattle’s earliest cornerback pick under Carroll in 13 years being Shaquill Griffin at 90th overall, Witherspoon is also the top-ranked corner in a draft class that has enough questions about the top-20 prospects to think that this might be a time to make exceptions for someone who will alter the attitude of a defense that too many opponents see as “soft”.
Using this picture of Witherspoon’s workout day to point out the guy in the Seahawks hat, not the guy in the circle:
Something I always want to be cautious of relative to my opponents—ahem, sorry, I mean “relative to other Seahawks draft writers”—is that I don’t get tunnel vision every time I come across a prospect I like simply trying to connect dots for why he “makes perfect sense for Seattle”. I’m as capable of confirmation bias as anyone else and when you’re talking about really good prospects, well shoot—just about anybody could “make perfect sense” for the team you’re covering.
But apart from the fact that Pete Carroll has shown zero inclination or urgency with adding cornerbacks in the draft—which is about the same thing you can say about quarterbacks in the draft and yet there’s been almost no objection to asking for that this year—Devon Witherspoon is by almost any other measure the “that dude” who changes the Seahawks toughness and tackling against the San Francisco 49ers next season.
In a draft class that has question marks on any prospect who will be available when Seattle is on the clock, should the Seahawks spend their house money on an immediate upgrade in the slot and the locker room?
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Seahawks lack intimidation on defense: “If you’re a dawg, they’ll come find you” - D. Witherspoon
He’s got #31 on his jersey and in his heart. You know what that means. If there’s one play from Devon Witherspoon that everybody needs to watch before coming to a conclusion about Seattle’s first pick, it’s the first one of the game against Indiana:
The night that I first knew that the Seahawks were going to be a good football team under Pete Carroll was December 1, 2011. Seattle was hosting the Philadelphia Eagles on Thursday Night football and the Seahawks won 31-14. It wasn’t so much the victory or the final score though as both teams entered the night at 4-7; it was how Seattle’s defense dominated and toyed with Philadelphia’s offense that night, as if they were offended that the Eagles brought such a garbage effort to the field. Whether it was true or not that the Eagles were garbage, it was the fact that the Seahawks treated them like garbage and that entire tone started with Kam Chancellor and Richard Sherman.
Seattle picked off Vince Young four times, including one by Chancellor (in front of DeSean Jackson), one by David Hawthorne, and two by Brandon Browner.
Though Chancellor was a 6’3, 225 lb safety made out of diamond and Witherspoon is a 5’11, 181 cornerback with 31.25” arms, he’s the prospect in the class who is most likely to effect a play even before it happens. The “oh man, this guy is going to fuck up what we want to do, isn’t he?” type of player. Kam had that. Michael Bennett had that. The Seahawks traded two first round picks for Jamal Adams because they expected him to have that, but right now it’s the main ingredient that Seattle is missing on defense.
Not only can the Seahawks drop him directly into an area of need—slot cornerback, a position that had a weak training camp competition last year followed by a rotation of disappoinitng results during the season—but they can add attitude to a defense that doesn’t seem to believe that they have the right to intimidate and dominate on every single play. Here’s what ProFootballNetwork’s James Fragoza wrote about Witherspoon:
Aggressive. Physical. Confident. If you watch Witherspoon play, and those aren’t the first words that come to mind, we’re watching different players. Like Sauce Gardner from the 2022 class, Witherspoon has the utmost belief in his ability to shut down the man across from him.
What he lacks in size, he doubles with sheer effort and will. He sets the tone in the secondary with energetic and violent plays, both with the ball in the air and on the ground.
Seriously, you won’t see any other corner lay the wood with as much vigor and furiosity as Witherspoon. But he isn’t just throwing his body into hits aimlessly — he understands leverage and angles, using the proper path and technique into every attempt.
At his combine press conference, Witherspoon leads with “physical” and “aggressive” when describing his play style because he knows that’s what he does and what coaches/teams want to hear.
“If you’re a dawg, they’ll come find you.”
Witherspoon references Darrelle Revis as the cornerback he most admires because he’s “a guy who came from nothing and came out on top”. Witherspoon didn’t start playing football until his junior year of high school and so he received no stars as a college recruit; he was still good enough to get the attention of Illinois once he raised his grades and managed to see the field as a true freshman despite a stark lack of experience.
Sounds like a “chip on the shoulder” mentality to me. Here’s a quote from Pete Carroll posted at SI during Seattle’s first Super Bowl run:
"It's the competitiveness this team has, and I think we've really chosen guys who feel that they have something to prove," he told me. "[General Manager] John [Schneider] feels like that, I feel like that, and we all feel like that. It's a chip on the shoulder kind of mentality around here, and it's something I recognized the second year. We had a bunch of guys who kind of understood what that meant, and we've just kind of built on that. I think we're a very, very competitive group -- we understand the value of that and where we want to go. It's a powerful feeling we have."
I’m just a guy writing an article trying to make Devon Witherspoon make sense for the Seattle Seahawks…and whether it should or not, it’s been very easy to do so far.
Unfortunately, none of this matters if Witherspoon isn’t good in run defense—Seattle’s Achilles heel right now—and coverage.
Fortunately…come on, you know I wasn’t going to write all this up or Witherspoon wouldn’t be the top cornerback for many if he wasn’t playing at another level in both areas.
“Elite Run Defense”
Fragoza describes Witherspoon’s run defense as “elite” with italics.
Against the run, Witherspoon disengages quickly from outside blockers and crashes down to support the front seven. Many times, the Illinois CB made the solo stop, even behind the line of scrimmage on runs toward the edge.
Whereas some other corners in this class show a potential lack of physicality, finishing plays, and toughness, Witherspoon is fittingly alone on an island in those areas. WalterFootball’s Charlie Campbell describes his run defense as:
Witherspoon's tenacity shows up in run defense, as he will spring across the field and deliver some physical tacklers on ball-carriers. His ability to come downhill in zone coverage and lay a hard hit is impressive for a corner who is a touch undersized. When other Illini allowed a long pass or run, Witherspoon displayed good effort not to quit on plays, and he showed how fast he is by chasing down ball-carriers to make touchdown-saving tackles. Witherspoon plays hard and looks like a real competitor.
In breaking down his top two corners in the draft this year, Hall of Famer Ronde Barber praised Oregon’s Christian Gonzalez for fluidity, hip movement, certain traits and measurables that Witherspoon can literally never have. But his biggest criticism and the reason why Gonzalez is his clear CB2 behind a player that he’s absolutely in love with—Devon Witherspoon—is how he tackles, finishes plays, and sets the tone of a defense.
Similarly, Chris Simms said that he totally expected Gonzalez to be his “man crush” of the entire draft, only to end up slotting him behind Witherspoon because he had an even bigger crush on him after watching the top of the cornerback class.
There’s this saying in comedy—”Oh, they’re a comedian’s comedian” as in that’s the person who every comic loves and admires, even if that person isn’t the richest or the most famous—and Devon Witherspoon is “a football player’s football player”.
Witherspoon is the football playing football player that every football player wants to play football with.
That’s pretty wild for someone who didn’t even pick up the sport until he was 16 or 17 years old. But Witherspoon has been an immensely quick study, having gone from his first year of football being around 2017 to playing Division-I football defense in 2019 to getting better every year until he was arguably the most dominant cornerback in college in 2022.
When people ask, “Who is the Sauce Gardner of this class?” you won’t get an easy answer, but that might only be because Gardner also had the measurables. Sauce might be more of a mix of Gonzalez and Witherspoon, but if you had to choose one half of Gardner, I think that Witherspoon might still end up qualifying as a rare top-5 draft pick at cornerback.
Everything you need in pass coverage
A versatile cornerback, Devon Witherspoon didn’t face many future NFL receivers in college but he did continuously get better until he was just flat out dominant. Again, 2022 was maybe his fifth year of playing football ever?
Cornerback Darius Butler ranked his top-5 slot defenders in the NFL last year and here’s what he said about the position:
“Being a slot defender you got to be versatile. You gotta be able to do man-to-man, zone, play against the run, blitz. You gotta be smart because you have to communicate with everyone, you have to communicate with guys in the front and the guys behind you, the guys to your left, the guys to your right. And you gotta be physical, because you’re not only covering those guys on an island but you also gotta tackle these guys in the B-gap, in the C-gap and tackle running backs. You kind of have to be a coach on the field, as well, if you’re a good slot defender at least.”
Sounds almost EXACTLY like Devon Witherspoon? Something we haven’t talked about yet is that reports, coaches, everything says and indicates that Witherspoon is obsessed with film study and preparation, which is apparent in how immediate and impressive his improvement has been over the past three seasons. If the Seahawks want to avoid a top-5 pick on Jalen Carter because they’re worried that he won’t study, won’t practice, won’t commit, and doesn’t love football, then shouldn’t they run directly at the prospect who has polar opposite characteristics?
Of course, oftentimes those guys don’t play high-leverage positions and/or don’t have the physical traits to be elite, but that’s not the case with Witherspoon.
Seahawks need a physical, run-defending slot corner
Last week, I wrote a reminder of Seattle’s 2023 opponents and that will include: Two games against Christian McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel, and Brandon Aiyuk; a game against A.J. Brown, DeVonta Smith, Dallas Goedert, and Rashaad Penny; a game against Ja’Marr Chase, Tyler Boyd, Tee Higgins; a game against Lamar Jackson (maybe), OBJ, Rashod Bateman (who Witherspoon did face in college), Mark Andrews, J.K. Dobbins; a game against Nick Chubb, David Njoku, Elijah Moore, Amari Cooper; a game against Dan Campbell’s physical Detroit Lions…
Not to just make lists on lists on lists, because most teams have schedules full of games against loaded offenses—that’s the nature of the NFL’s roster-building strategies these days, trying to make “Super Teams of Skill Players” like NBA teams—and that makes it more compelling for Pete Carroll to counter-attack with secondary weapons in a way that few NFC teams are doing. Here’s something I found interesting:
In the last three years, there have been 17 first round defensive backs: Only six of them were picked by an NFC team. Of those six, Jeff Gladney was quickly out of football and sadly passed away in 2022; Jeff Okudah was traded to the Falcons for a fifth round pick on Tuesday. The other 11 went to the AFC.
In the same period of time, there have been 19 second round defensive backs: 10 of those went to the NFC, and most of those players have not been good other than (so far) Trevon Diggs and Antoine Winfield. When you piled up the top-ranked cornerbacks drafted into the NFC over the last three first/second rounds, you end up with Jaycee Horn (CAR), A.J. Terrell (ATL), and Trevon Diggs (DAL).
When I look at NFC teams in the top-10 of the draft—Cardinals, Seahawks, Lions, Falcons, Bears, Eagles—I see that as an opportunity. An opportunity to have an advantage over your conference opponents, most of whom have been more obsessed with improving their offenses and ignoring their defenses. To some degree that includes Seattle, as they fell backwards into Tariq Woolen in the fifth round of the 2022 NFL Draft, but still ranked in the bottom-third in points/yards allowed, run defense (bottom-three), and DVOA.
The Seahawks could open next season with Woolen, Mike Jackson, Julian Love, Quandre Diggs, and one other player and be fine (I’m not counting on Jamal Adams), but what if Love is tasked with strong safety? What if Coby Bryant isn’t better than he was last season, because Bryant was bad last season? What if Tre Brown isn’t healthy? What if he’s healthy, but not good?
Adding Devon Witherspoon gives Seattle a potential Week 1 option at slot corner, freeing up Love and pushing Bryant and Brown into a reserve role or on the outside. For the future, Witherspoon has the potential to become an elite boundary cornerback in spite of his 5’11 frame and 31.25” arms because we can tell by many of the receivers coming into the NFL lately (and with regards to the likes of fellow rookies Zay Flowers, Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Jordan Addison) that he won’t be out-sized by opponents most weeks.
Woolen was a Pro Bowl cornerback as a rookie in part because the NFC lacks better options at the position. Witherspoon has the potential to be a Pro Bowler next season for the same reason, but there are areas of his game that already go beyond Woolen’s, he seems to be a better run defender, he plays a different position entirely than Woolen, and he’s going to fill up one of those mysterious “intangible” needs that nobody else on the defense seems to bring.
If Woolen is Sherman in a Sherman-esque frame, then Witherspoon is Kam Chancellor in a Witherspoon-frame.
I had me at “is Kam Chancellor”.
Should any team use a top-5 pick on this position?
I think you can look back on the 2022 draft and say that even without hindsight that Sauce Gardner should have been the number one overall pick. Though he wasn’t even the first corner drafted, going after Derek Stingley, that was really only one GMs decision and we know that it was a bad one. Gardner had everything that you want in a cornerback and if he had just come out of Ohio State instead of Cincinnati, he could have at least been cited as the most sensible pick for the Detroit Lions instead of Aidan Hutchinson.
What really held back the Lions and Jaguars from drafting Sauce more than anything else though was probably this archaic and stupid idea that “you don’t draft corners number one”. I would say that should only be true if there’s a DEFINITE quarterback, edge rusher, or tackle who is undeniable at the top. Maybe at QB you have some leeway there and can reach at #1, but I don’t see good enough evidence that in the modern era that it makes sense to reach for edge or left tackle just because that’s the way it’s always done.
There was nothing about Travon Walker or Hutchinson that would make them number one picks in most draft classes, they both benefited from a year when no quarterbacks deserved to go in the top-10, or even the first round. I think that with the benefit of hindsight, Walker and Hutchinson may not even go in the top-10 of this class. We might kind of see that play out with Tyree Wilson and Will Anderson, two edge prospects who may end up falling because teams aren’t quite as enamored with traits or college production.
Not to say that they didn’t have promising rookie seasons. I just can’t imagine that a year later that their traits and position would make them more attractive prospects today than Sauce Gardner or Tariq Woolen. They weren’t good enough. Maybe in 2-3 years, Hutchinson and Walker are legit 15-sack, 70-pressure types of edge players, but Gardner and Woolen are ALREADY All-Pro level corners and they’re having an immediate impact on some of the top pro offensive players in the league.
From 2004 to 2010, not a single cornerback went in the top-5. Then you had Patrick Peterson go fifth overall in 2011, followed by four more years without a cornerback going that early. However, since then we’ve seen Jalen Ramsey (2016), Denzel Ward (2018), Okudah (2020), Stingley and Sauce (2022). That’s five top-5 cornerbacks in the last seven years, which came after there were SIX from 1993 to 2016!
One of those being Shawn Springs, Seattle’s third overall pick in 1997. In fact, top-four corners are extremely rare but we’ve had four since 2018 alone.
This idea of “positional fear” in the top-5 is all about the perspective of the modern game, whatever “modern” means at the time and right now, cornerback is an acceptable position to draft ahead of offensive tackles, ahead of edge rushers, ahead of defensive tackles, ahead of receivers, and ahead of quarterbacks that you don’t really love.
You know that moment in a movie when one character looks at another character right before they did THE BIG, CRAZY THING that they need to do and says, “Are we really gonna do this?”
Maybe we get to draft night and two quarterbacks are off the board, as well as two defensive line prospects, and Pete Carroll looks at John Schneider and without even saying the words is able to convey the message with his eyes…”Are we really gonna do this?”
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Devon Witherspoon has everything a team wants in a slot cornerback, he has the upside to be an elite boundary cornerback, he’s versatile, he’s fast enough, he’s an upgrade to any team’s run defense, he loves football, he loves studying, he’s eager, he’s motivated, he’s got a chip on his shoulder, and not only he does he have a dawg in him…his dawg’s only mission is to eat other dawgs.
You know when you really love someone? It’s when being with them supercedes all your other wants, desires, and comforts. They become your new want, desire, and comfort. I think Devon Witherspoon might be that safe, comfort zone for Pete Carroll, the prospect in this draft that he measures every other prospect against…Jalen Carter, Anthony Richardson, Will Anderson, Tyree Wilson…”Make me want you more than I want Devon Witherspoon. I dare you.”
Because if none of them do, I could see Pete and John saying, “This is a guy I don’t have to teach the one thing that every football player needs above everything else.”
Are they really gonna do this? To see how Devon Witherspoon-to-the-Seahawks might look, I did a new mock draft on Tuesday, READ IT HERE!