We’re about a month away from the NFL Draft and cornerback is one of the biggest needs the Las Vegas Raiders have heading into April. The Raiders have a collection of solid corners on the roster but lack a true No. 1 at the position, a role that Illinois’ Devon Witherspoon could take over in Las Vegas.
At the NFL Combine, head coach Josh McDaniels talked about wanting to get defenders who can make plays on the ball as the Silver and Black struggled to defend passes and create turnovers. Last season, Witherspoon ranked third among FBS corners with 14 pass breakups and added three interceptions as well which were tied for second in the Big 10.
The Illinois product also earned the highest coverage grade from Pro Football Focus (92.5) at his position and posted a meager 25.3 passer rating when targeted, the fifth-lowest mark among qualifying corners in 2022.
While all of the numbers above are great, what could Witherspoon bring to the Raiders if he’s drafted seventh overall? Let’s turn to the tape and find out.
Well done on the scramble drill from Devon Witherspoon here pic.twitter.com/yFzgC9USUG— Matt Holder (@MHolder95) March 27, 2023
Illinois is running Cover 2 here and Witherspoon is responsible for the right flat. Off the line of scrimmage, he matches the wide receiver’s release to maintain his leverage advantage and does a good job of recognizing the slant-flat concept from Virginia. That allows him to pass off the outside receiver and pick up the slot to take away the easy first-down throw for the quarterback.
Once the QB starts to scramble in the other direction, he sinks and locates the receiver running across the field to help take him away. Otherwise, that wideout is wide open with a lot of room to work with after the catch. When the quarterback commits to running, Witherspoon has the acceleration to close and make sure Virginia doesn’t convert on third down.
A lot is going on here and while this play won’t look like much on the stat sheet, this rep is a good example of the corner’s football intelligence and athleticism.
Devon Witherspoon drives on the short route and gets a PBU pic.twitter.com/IlKKQxf3Dk— Matt Holder (@MHolder95) March 27, 2023
Here, the Illini are playing Cover 1 which means Witherspoon is in man coverage with the wide receiver at the bottom of the screen. When the receiver breaks on the short in route, he drives on it and gets right in the receiver’s hip pocket.
What I like about this play is Witherspoon doesn’t come downhill like a bat out of hell and take out the receiver before the ball gets there. Instead, he stays under control and is still in a spot to contest the pass without drawing a penalty. When the ball does come, he gets aggressive and plays through the receiver to force an incompletion.
This was also fourth and one with the Cavaliers trying to stay in the game, so Witherspoon makes a great play to create a turnover on downs and keep the momentum of the game on his sideline.
Devon Witherspoon with a beautiful job of reading the QB’s eyes to go get a PBU pic.twitter.com/YcssDsMkE7— Matt Holder (@MHolder95) March 27, 2023
This is probably the best example of Witherspoon’s combination of instincts and ball skills.
Illinois is running a goal-line zone coverage so he passes off the slant from the outside receiver and picks up the running back on the flat route, all while eyeing the quarterback which means he has excellent peripheral vision to find threats coming to his area.
He keeps his eyes locked on the quarterback during the scramble and reads the quarterback’s eyes. Before the ball is even released, he breaks on the two routes behind him and is able to get in the throwing lane to make a play on the ball on a pass that wasn’t even intended for his man.
Devon Witherspoon reads screen and picture perfect tackle pic.twitter.com/ZaSGHJ4glW— Matt Holder (@MHolder95) March 27, 2023
Here, we’re going to see Witherspoon line up over the slot with Minnesota in 21 personnel and twin receivers to the wide side of the field. Since the ball is on the hash, the Gophers run a tunnel screen to take advantage of the extra space laterally.
The slot receiver works outside to set up his block and the wide receiver works underneath/back toward the cornerback. This is designed to fool the two corners playing over the top of them, however, Witherspoon isn’t fooled and recognizes the play design. So, he drives on the route and makes an excellent open-field tackle with low pad level to prevent the first down and limit yards after the catch.
Another good example of Witherspoon’s instincts and acceleration, this time combined with a big hit.
Devon Witherspoon runs the route for the WR pic.twitter.com/aPUz12i4yx— Matt Holder (@MHolder95) March 27, 2023
Witherspoon is somewhat unique in his ability to make nearly every throw a contested target, even against short routes. He’s playing Cover 1 where which means he has to work for some depth post-snap since he won’t have safety help over the top. That can make it difficult to defend against a slant, however, not when the defensive back runs the route for the receiver as he does here.
By the time the ball reaches the target, Witherspoon is already plastered over the receiver and gives little to no room to complete the pass. His ability to click and close on short routes is very impressive.
March 27, 2023
Witherspoon is far from a perfect prospect. In press coverage, he struggles to maintain a leverage advantage and might be a little too quick to open his hips, resulting in him losing at the line of scrimmage. He has a similar issue with his leverage when playing off-coverage too, and he’ll get caught flat-footed which can lead to him getting beat on in-breaking routes.
When he does get beat, Witherspoon can be grabby and is susceptible to getting called for pass interference or defensive holding. While every single call didn’t necessarily fall into those two categories, he did draw 11 flags in the past two years.
At 5’11” and some change and 181 pounds, he also struggles to hold up against physicality whether that be at the top of the route or against blocks from a bigger wide receiver. The latter impacts his ability to defend against the run, and his angles are too shallow as a run defender on top of that.
All of this being said, Witherspoon is still a very good cornerback prospect who would be a welcomed sight on the Raiders' defense. Coordinator Patrick Graham will love his ball skills in addition to his ability to play Cover 2 and man coverage. Don’t be surprised if the Illinois product is donning silver and black next season.