The 49ers expect to be without second-year cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon for the final two games, coach Kyle Shanahan confirmed Monday. Witherspoon sprained the PCL in his right knee Sunday and will be placed on injured reserve.
Witherspoon, a third-round draft pick in 2017, entered the season as a starter for the first time after a promising finish to his rookie campaign. But he struggled early before stringing together solid performances.
“Wish he could have finished these last two games,” Shanahan said. “I think he definitely is finishing better than he started. But his story’s not written yet. He’s got to improve. Hopefully, he’ll come back here ready to go next year and take off the way he finished.”
Witherspoon’s uneven season makes it likely he’ll have to re-earn his starting job. The 49ers could use some of their $65 million in cap space on a cornerback to start opposite Richard Sherman. Or they could invest a draft pick, perhaps as high as their likely top-five selection, on a player such as LSU star Greedy Williams.
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San Francisco ranks last in the NFL with two interceptions. They would set the record for fewest picks in a season if they don’t get one against the Bears or Rams. The Houston Oilers had three in the strike-shortened, nine-game 1982 season.
Witherspoon allowed five touchdowns through the first six games, according to Pro Football Focus, and none since the loss to the Rams on Oct. 21.
“I thought he got a lot better in his coverage,” Shanahan said. “More consistent, playing a little more physical in his coverage, too. I know he had some (pass interference) calls over the last month, ones that I wouldn’t want him to play differently. I thought he did a real good job in all those. I liked how he got more aggressive throughout the year.”
San Francisco will likely turn to rookie third-round pick Tarvarius Moore to finish in its patchwork secondary. Moore played well for most of Sunday’s victory over the Seattle Seahawks after replacing Witherspoon seven snaps into the game.
However, Moore was in coverage against receiver Doug Baldwin when he scored his first of two touchdowns soon after Witherspoon limped to the locker room.
“I know they challenged him a number of times,” Shanahan said. “He missed some plays, but I like how he rebounded throughout the game.”
Moore played safety at Southern Mississippi before the 49ers switched him to the outside. His name shot up draft boards after not being invited to the NFL combine by posting impressive testing numbers. He ran a 4.32 40-yard dash and has used that speed to become valuable on special teams.
Shanahan sticks by Mullens - Quarterback C.J. Beathard won’t be dropping the clipboard anytime soon. Shanahan said the plan is to stick with Nick Mullens simply because he’s earned it.
“Nick deserves to be in,” Shanahan said. “Nick’s played very good and he’s gotten better as he’s gone. I thought (Sunday) was Nick’s best game, especially the way he finished it.”
Mullens is averaging 340 yards while completing nearly 64 percent of his passes over the past three games. He’s thrown five touchdown passes and two interceptions for a passer rating of 101.4 over that span.
Beathard lost the starting job Nov. 1 when a hand injury prevented him from properly gripping a football in time for that night’s game against the Raiders. Mullens helped orchestrate a 34-3 win and has started since.
“He’s done too good of a job. I’d love to get C.J. more playing time, but Nick’s earned it and I’m not taking him out,” Shanahan said.
No thoughts of Buckner contract, yet - Defensive tackle DeForest Buckner logged two sacks against the Seahawks to extend his career best to 11 this season.
The seventh overall draft pick in 2016 will first be eligible for a contract extension in the offseason and appears to be a likely candidate, although Shanahan said he hasn’t thought about Buckner’s contract status, yet.
“We’ll look into all that stuff. I hadn’t thought about any of that now,” he said. “DeFo’s someone we want to be a Niner for a long time. So however the best way (is) to get that done.”
Buckner, 24, is clearly San Francisco’s best young defender. He could garner something in the range of $15 million per season. But he doesn’t have to sign a new contract now, even if the 49ers would prefer to get a deal done sooner than later.
Buckner could wait for free agency in 2021 and use the open market to drive up his value. The sooner he signs, the more affordable the contract will be for San Francisco. Because if Buckner strings together three straight double-digit sack seasons, his price could increase significantly.