Two years after drafting Arik Armstead in the first round, the 49ers took another Sacramento area product on Friday, cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon, who played at Christian Brothers High School.
The 49ers envision the 6-foot-3, 200-pound Witherspoon as an athletic, press cornerback in their aggressive 4-3 defense. A late bloomer who weighed less than 100 pounds as a high school freshman, Witherspoon played only one year of high school football before going to Sacramento City College and then to Colorado where last year he led the nation with 22 pass breakups.
As the third round was ending, the 49ers made a late trade with Minnesota to take quarterback C.J. Beathard, who attracted the attention of coach Kyle Shanahan because of his plucky playing style at Iowa.
The 49ers took long looks at the most prominent quarterbacks in this year’s draft. Beathard (6-2, 219) is more obscure, and he expected he could be selected as late as the sixth round.
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He’s the grandson of former Washington and San Diego general manager Bobby Beathard, and Shanahan said it was obvious football is important to him.
“He’s a leader. He’s tough. He processes (information) very well,” Shanahan said. “He’s extremely accurate, and he lives and dies football.”
Beathard completed only 56.5 percent of his passes last season and threw 17 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, none of which are sterling numbers. But Shanahan noted his statistics were better in 2015 when Iowa had a stronger team and that he operated in a pro-style system, which doesn’t produce gaudy numbers like the spread attacks other draft-eligible quarterbacks ran.
“One thing that helps is seeing guys play the way you’re going to ask them to play,” Shanahan said. “... To watch him over the years – he was a three-year starter, led his team to a bunch of wins, especially in 2015 when they had a better team. I think he played unbelievably.”
The 49ers hosted Witherspoon earlier this month.
“He’s a really smart kid – that was quite apparent when he came on his visit here,” general manager John Lynch said. “... From what I understand, I think back in high school he was 5-9 and then just really sprouted up. He has the athleticism, still, of a guy who is 5-9 but yet he has that great length and size that we covet at his position.”
Lynch said he, Shanahan and personnel executives Adam Peters and Martin Mayhew – a former NFL cornerback – went over Witherspoon’s film one last time when they arrived for work Friday. The session sealed him as the player they would target in the third round.
Witherspoon and Armstead, a defensive end, already know each other. Each spent a year at Jesuit High School in Sacramento before transferring elsewhere – Armstead to Pleasant Grove and Witherspoon to Christian Brothers where he played soccer, basketball and eventually football.
Witherspoon also trained with Armstead under Armstead’s father, Guss, who works with elite basketball players in the area. Guss Armstead said Witherspoon is the rare athlete who could have played at the Division I level in four sports. The Toronto Blue Jays remain interested in him as an outfielder.
“He was always like a big brother – physically and like being an inspiration,” Witherspoon said of Arik Armstead. “I’m just excited to have the opportunity to play next to him. It’s going to be a great place to play.”
Witherspoon said he credits his soccer background – he was a midfielder through high school – with the footwork needed at cornerback. He said his sister Alexis, who is 5 years older, was an excellent soccer player who got him interested in the sport.
“I’m most thankful for that sport because it gave me the footwork, the body awareness that I now take into football,” Witherspoon said. “Without her, I don’t know if I would have played soccer, if I would have had that urge. So I’m extremely thankful for her.”
Lynch said the soccer background is apparent when watching film of Witherspoon.
“The one things that strikes you and anyone who watches football – it caught my eye – is that he has great feet,” Lynch said.
Witherspoon weighed 200 pounds when he visited the 49ers and had the most impressive wingspan – 79 3/8 inches – of any defensive back in the draft. He noted that he’s still growing and estimated that he’ll eventually top out at at 210 pounds.
Critics noted that while his coverage skills improved over time at Colorado, Witherspoon was an unwilling tackler who needs to be more rough and tumble in that part of his game. Lynch said it was an issue he raised with Witherspoon and something he said he’d work on.
“It needs to improve,” Lynch said. “... I like physical players, and I think what helps is I saw examples on film where he can do it. And that’s why you go get guys like (first-round picks) Solomon Thomas and Reuben Foster to draw that out of him. I always believe that when you put people in a room that are exhibiting how you want to play, the other guys have no choice if they want to be on that field.”
The 49ers selected Witherspoon with the 66th overall pick. They traded the 67th pick to the Saints – who chose Tennessee running back Alvin Kamara – for a seventh-round pick this year and a second-round selection next year. They already had acquired an extra third rounder in Thursday’s trade with the Bears.
San Francisco selected Beathard at pick 104, which had been a Vikings’ compensatory pick. In return they sent the 109th pick (fourth round) and 219th (seventh round) to Minnesota.