What Steelers trade for CB Ahkello Witherspoon means for James Pierre

San Francisco 49ers cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon (23). Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
San Francisco 49ers cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon (23). Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports /

The Pittsburgh Steelers recently made a splash play for cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon. Here’s what this trade could mean for James Pierre. 

Pittsburgh Steelers fans finally got their wish on Friday afternoon. After the Steelers sat dormant without making a big move for a cornerback all offseason (apart from signing Arthur Maulet to a minimum contract in free agency), the team recently traded for newly-signed Seahawks cornerback, Ahkello Witherspoon.

This move comes after the Steelers failed to select a cornerback with any of their 9 selections in the 2021 NFL Draft. Pittsburgh’s initial 53-man roster saw them keeping just 4 cornerbacks before Maulet was later brought back for depth purposes. Now Witherspoon gives this team some much-needed security and experience at the position this year.

While a trade for a cornerback wasn’t unexpected, this move took me by surprise, as I thought Pittsburgh would target a nickel defensive back. Witherspoon certainly is not this guy. At 6’3”, Witherspoon is a tall, long boundary cornerback who has rarely seen any action in the slot. In fact, he charted just three snaps inside the formation last season.

During his first four seasons with the San Francisco 49ers, Witherspoon was up and down but finally developed into a consistent football player last season. Though he missed 5 games last year, he remarkably still graded out as the 6th-best cornerback in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus.

The addition of Witherspoon almost certainly means that Cameron Sutton will be kicking inside for slot duties this season in nickel and dime packages in 2021. But what does this addition mean for CB James Pierre?

Don’t count out Steelers CB James Pierre just yet

While the trade for Witherspoon certainly looks like an indictment on the depth of Steelers cornerbacks in 2021, that doesn’t mean that this team doesn’t have any confidence in James Pierre. The second-year former undrafted free agent was one of the most impressive players in training camp and preseason this summer and he only improved his stock with strong showings.

Witherspoon, meanwhile, is an athletic cornerback who has already started 33 games in his first four seasons and is coming off the best year of his career. However, that doesn’t mean that he’s guaranteed to be the guy that runs over Pierre on the depth chart.

Pittsburgh is no stranger to trading fifth-round picks for depth. Over the past two years, they did the exact same thing for a backup tight end in Nick Vannett and a stop-gap linebacker in Avery Williamson. It’s also worth noting that Witherspoon has a relatively cheap base salary of just $2.7 million this year (Steelers will pay just $1.5 million) and $1.2 million in 2022, according to Over the Cap. The fact that he was so affordable in free agency might show what teams think of him.

While Witherspoon could have a chance to start for the Steelers, I think it’s possible that the team still gives James Pierre the first look on the outside. I think he’s earned it with a very strong summer.

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It will be interesting to see how the cornerback depth sorts itself out, but adding Ahkello Witherspoon looks like a quality move on paper. Let’s hope his presence will only push the young guys in the secondary even harder this year.