NFL Nation: Donte Whitner

CLEVELAND -- The Pro Bowl will have quite the Cleveland Browns defensive backfield presence.

Browns safety Donte Whitner told late Monday morning that he's headed to the Pro Bowl as an alternate. Whitner will replace Super Bowl-bound Seahawks safety Earl Thomas in the game.

Whitner joins safety Tashaun Gipson and cornerback Joe Haden as Browns defensive backs in the Pro Bowl. Also, left tackle Joe Thomas is making his eighth straight appearance.

Whitner will be appearing in his third Pro Bowl, two of which came with the 49ers. Whitner finished this past season with 106 tackles, one forced fumble and one interception, serving as one of the Browns' best run-stoppers.
BALTIMORE -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the Cleveland Browns' 20-10 loss to the Baltimore Ravens.
  • Whitner
    Fed up: A similar theme came from different voices, especially veterans: The Browns need every player to be accountable and distraction-free. Players wouldn't mention names, but the implications were clear after a weekend of headlines with Josh Gordon (suspended for missing walk-through), Johnny Manziel (fined for being late to treatment) and Justin Gilbert (inactive after showing up late to a meeting). "I've been assured we are going to bring guys in and get guys off this bus that don't really want to be here and do what they are supposed to do," safety Donte Whitner said. Corner Joe Haden added after a long pause: "Everybody’s got to be all-in. Everybody’s gotta try to fight for this one goal."
  • Shaw gets street cred: Quarterback Connor Shaw's numbers weren't outrageous (14-of-28, 177 yards, one interception), but he was steady all day and avoided big mistakes, which is all the Browns could have wanted from an undrafted rookie and former practice-squad player making his first start. His interception came when the Browns were down late. He also fumbled early in the game. "He's a warrior, and I think he showed that today," receiver Andrew Hawkins said. "We couldn't be more proud of the way Connor conducted himself." Added Shaw: "I felt comfortable out there. ... Winning would have made it so great today."
  • Rookie RB shows up: Terrance West had an erratic rookie season but capped it with a 94-yard rushing performance at Baltimore on 18 carries. He added his fourth touchdown of the season. West had four games of fewer than 15 rushing yards this year but countered with three games of at least 90. "It had ups and downs, a roller coaster, but hey, man, we keep moving forward," West said. "I’ve got to grow up. I’ve got to lead. Focus more. Next year, I’m going to be a vet. Everybody will step up to the plate.”

#NFLRank 2014: Takeaways from 71-80

August, 20, 2014
Three takeaways from ESPN's #NFLRank reveal of the top 100 offensive and top 100 defensive players in the league. Today: 71-80.

1. Money for nothing? The Baltimore Ravens got a Super Bowl victory out of quarterback Joe Flacco in 2012, and Flacco got an impenetrable contract that will pay him well beyond his current performance level. He'll take in $21 million this season, a year after the Ravens paid him $30 million, and almost certainly will be around for an $11 million payday in 2015. That'll take his three-year grab to $62 million, and because of the deal's cap structure, it's quite likely he'll get some kind of extension after that. (Releasing him after 2015 would trigger a $26 million cap charge.) And for what? #NFLRank tabbed him the No. 80 offensive player in the league, behind 14 quarterbacks, and that seems about right. Last season, Flacco's Total Quarterback Rating ranked No. 25 in the NFL. Don't blame Flacco. His team won the Super Bowl at exactly the right time -- for him.

2. A pair of veteran defenders: Did the Cleveland Browns plan it this way? Who knows? In the end, however, they signed two free agents this spring who were destined to be stacked on top of each other in #NFLRank. Linebacker Karlos Dansby is No. 72 among all defensive players, and safety Donte Whitner is No. 73. Dansby is 32 and Whitner is 29, and nothing about their #NFLRank seems out of place. As much as anything, the Browns are hoping Dansby and Whitner can add edge and aggressiveness to an otherwise faceless defense. Their best playing days are probably behind them, but the Browns will be happy with the attitude adjustment they're likely to bring.

3. Growing into a role: Nate Solder began his college career as a tight end and hadn't finished growing into a left tackle's body by the time he entered the NFL in 2011. But Solder, positioned at No. 72 in #NFLRank, has developed into a more-than-adequate left tackle for the New England Patriots. Soon it will be time for the Patriots to decide whether to commit long term, as the Dallas Cowboys recently did with left tackle Tyron Smith, or move on. Solder is a bargain in 2014 with a $1.7 million salary, but he will have a chance to dramatically increase his compensation in 2015 with a strong season. Left tackle is one of the more difficult spots to fill in the NFL, and the Patriots would be wise to let Solder continue to grow with them.

49ers offseason wrap-up

May, 22, 2014
» NFC Wrap: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South » Grades

With free agency and the draft in the rearview mirror and training camp just a couple of months away, we assess the San Francisco 49ers' offseason moves.

[+] EnlargeStevie Johnson
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty ImagesThe 49ers added depth to their receiving corps by acquiring Stevie Johnson.
Best move: Making offense a priority. The 49ers' re-signed receiver Anquan Boldin and kicker Phil Dawson in a free agency in which they signed only two outside veterans. During the draft, they added veteran receiver Stevie Johnson in a trade with the Buffalo Bills, then drafted a tumbling Ohio State running back Carlos Hyde in the second round. This offense now has a lot of firepower. These moves really solidified the unit.

Riskiest move: Change in the secondary. The 49ers will have three new starters in the secondary after seeing safety Donte Whitner and cornerback Tarell Brown leave in free agency and after cutting Carlos Rogers. Whitner was the only one the 49ers had interest in keeping, but he was too pricey. The 49ers made a nice move of bringing in a comparable player -- safety Antoine Bethea from the Colts. Chris Culliver, who was injured in 2013, and first-round pick Jimmie Ward will play in the nickel. I think these changes should work well, especially since the meat of the 49ers' defense is the front seven. But when there are such wholesale changes, it's a question mark.

Most surprising move: Making 12 draft picks. The 49ers entered the draft with 11 picks, but with few needs. Yet the 49ers ended up with 12, which was tied for most in the NFL. I don't think more than seven or eight of the draft picks have a chance to make this stacked roster. Of course, the 49ers took a few injured players to stash, which only helps the entire program. It's difficult to imagine a deeper team than San Francisco in the league.

Receiver depth: I cannot emphasize this enough -- it's stunning how much depth the 49ers now have at receiver when compared to last season. With Michael Crabtree hurt for much of the year, the 49ers received virtually no production from the position other than from Boldin. Now, the 49ers are loaded at with Boldin, Crabtree, Johnson, second-year player Quinton Patton (who missed much of the season with a broken foot) and speedy fourth-round pick Bruce Ellington. This is the biggest difference on the team.
SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The San Francisco 49ers were supposed to be powerbrokers of the first round.

Everyone was expecting them to go make the big move for a top-end receiver in an effort to compete with Super Bowl champion -- and heated NFC West rival -- Seattle.

Instead, the 49ers ended up addressing their one true need -- albeit in an unexpected way.

Instead of trading up for stud LSU receiver Odell Beckham or taking one of the glamour cornerbacks, the 49ers grabbed Northern Illinois safety Jimmie Ward with the 30th pick.

At first glance, it smacked of a curious reach. Yes, Ward was a scout's favorite, but he was considered more of a second-round pick. And he played a position the 49ers made their biggest offseason investment at -- by signing veteran Antoine Bethea to a four-year, $23 million deal.

With receivers Cody Latimer and Marqise Lee still on the board, picking Ward did not initially appear to make much sense. But after digesting the pick, I could see why the 49ers made this pick.

The 49ers' benchmark is defense. With star inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman out until about midseason with a torn ACL and star linebacker Aldon Smith's future clouded by a potential NFL suspension, the 49ers need to keep their edge in the early season.

This move should ensure they stay stout in the secondary. In addition to safety Donte Whitner (who Bethea replaces), the 49ers parted ways with their second and third cornerbacks -- Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers -- this offseason. Tramaine Brock and Chris Culliver are expected to start.

The 49ers want to see Ward become the nickel. He played there often at Northern Illinois. Some teams are using safeties as a nickel and it seems the 49ers are going that route.

There were rumblings the 49ers didn't like any of the four cornerbacks that went in the first round -- Justin Gilbert, Kyle Fuller, Darqueze Dennard and Jason Verrett. They had the means to trade up and pick any of them and didn't.

Instead, they eyed the hard-hitting, competitive and smart Ward.

This may be out of the box, but it seems like a 49ers move. Having Reid, who made the Pro Bowl as a rookie last season, the steady Bethea and Ward on the field together makes this a strong secondary.

49ers general manager Trent Baalke raved about Ward's competitive nature. Coach Jim Harbaugh simply said: "He loves football."

Baalke, who saw Ward play live once, said it was telling that when he asked scouts which games of Ward's he should watch, multiple scouts said, "Pick one." It was Ward's consistency that stood out to the 49ers.

Ward, who had the second most interceptions in the country last season with seven, led his team in tackles and interceptions the past two seasons. Baalke doesn't think coming from a smaller conference will be too much for Ward.

"The stage isn't too big for him," Baalke said.

Ward showed he had the mental toughness for the NFL when he ran for scouts with a broken foot, which is expected to be completely healed by training camp. Ward posted a 4.48 40-time on a bad wheel. That made Baalke smile.

The 49ers may not have stolen headlines with this pick, but they did add a key component to what makes them the 49ers -- an ornery defense.

Free-agency review: 49ers

March, 18, 2014
Most significant signing: Receiver Anquan Boldin. Fans may not like it when a team's most significant move is keeping one of its current players, but imagine if Boldin had walked. In his first season with the 49ers, Boldin became a critical part of the offense. Receiver was one of the team's biggest need areas. Re-signing Boldin helps keep this offense dangerous. The team's plan was to try to keep its best players, and Boldin was the top priority. That alone makes free agency a success.

Most significant loss: Cornerback Tarell Brown. I think safety Donte Whitner is a better player than Brown. But unlike Whitner, the 49ers have yet to replace Brown, who signed a one-year, $3.5 million contract with the crosstown Oakland Raiders. Brown is a solid player. His departure leaves a hole at the position.

Biggest surprise: The signing of former Indianapolis safety Antoine Bethea. About four hours before the start of free agency, word filtered out that Whitner was going to agree to a deal with his hometown Cleveland Browns. Shortly after free agency officially began, the 49ers had a deal done with Bethea. It was surprising in both swiftness and quality. The thought was that if Whitner were to leave, the 49ers would have to scramble to find a replacement. But Bethea is a comparable player to Whitner and a good fit for the defense.

What’s next? The 49ers are concentrating on adding players at cornerback and receiver. They took some looks at both spots in recent days, but nothing materialized. There are some pieces remaining on the market at both spots, but fit and price could be issues. The 49ers are fully expected to use early-round picks to address both positions in the draft.
There was no shortage of bravado as the Cleveland Browns introduced the three new members of their defense on Wednesday.

Donte Whitner, Karlos Dansby and Isaiah Trufant were sincere and upbeat about joining the Browns, which is a positive. But there’s nothing that stirs the souls of Browns fans more than free-agent signings and draft picks. At least there won’t be until the Browns win. And Whitner, Dansby and Trufant all believe they can be the guys to change the vibe.

“You really have to change the culture,” Whitner said. “You have to change the mindset and you have to change the feel within the locker room.”

Dansby, an inside linebacker, said his forte is “raising the play of the guys around me.”

“That’s what I’ve been able to do everywhere I’ve been over my career,” he added. “That’s what I am known for. ... If I’m able to do that, then I have a lot of success as well.”

Dansby said he’s on a mission to be the best player in the league, and he came close last season. He added all he knows “how to do is win” and he believes he can double his numbers from 2013, which he called the best season of his career.

“Playing at the toughest position in the NFL, and you get a chance to dominate at that position, it says a lot about you as a person, as character, and as a player,” Dansby said.

Whitner talked about coming home; he played at Glenville High School in inner city Cleveland, and has family and two children in town. He also talked about his high hopes for the 2014 Browns, saying he and Dansby believe they can contribute to a dominant defense.

“That’s what we believe,” Whitner said. “That’s why we teamed up together.”

He said the key to defense is understanding the scheme, then playing physical. As he said, “Somebody is going to get hit.”

“Are you a defense that is feared by offenses around the National Football League?” he asked.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- It's official: The Green Bay Packers will have a new starting free safety next season.

We don't know who it will be, but we know it won't be M.D. Jennings.

After starting every game for the Packers last season, Jennings wasn't even offered a restricted free-agent tender before Tuesday's deadline. On Wednesday, he signed a one-year contract with the Chicago Bears.

Given how ineffective Jennings was last season, the decision not to tender him was expected. Although Jennings was a full-time starter last season, the Packers tried to replace him at various points, using Chris Banjo early in the season and Sean Richardson late in the year.

Jennings was part of a safety group that failed to come up with a single interception last season. The Packers were the only team in the NFL that did not get an interception from one of their safeties in 2013.

Jennings, who entered the league as an undrafted free agent from Arkansas State, will be best remembered for being on the wrong end of the Fail Mary play against the Seattle Seahawks in 2012. Jennings thought he intercepted a pass that instead was ruled the game-winning touchdown by Golden Tate.

The Packers were not involved in any of the first wave of safeties to sign shortly after free agency opened Tuesday. Six safeties -- Donte Whitner, T.J. Ward, Antoine Bethea, Malcolm Jenkins, Jairus Byrd and Mike Mitchell -- all signed significant contracts within the first 24 hours of free agency with Byrd's deal (six years, $64 million with the New Orleans Saints) topping the market.

Last month at the scouting combine, Packers coach Mike McCarthy said Micah Hyde likely will play some at safety this season, but it's unclear if the second-year defensive back will make a full-time transition from cornerback.

Jennings might not be the only Packers player on the Bears’ radar. According to the Chicago Tribune, they have interest in Packers outside linebacker/defensive end Mike Neal, who is an unrestricted free agent.

Also on Wednesday, the Packers set up their first free-agent visit. Former Houston Texans tight end Owen Daniels will meet with the Packers. Daniels, who played at the University of Wisconsin, was released by the Texans last week in a cost-cutting move. Daniels missed all but five games last season because of a broken leg.

The Packers are in the market for a tight end because they could lose both Jermichael Finley (who is visiting the Seahawks) and free agent Andrew Quarless.
The Cleveland Browns did not play contract games in signing linebacker Karlos Dansby and safety Donte Whitner, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

No roster bonus games, no “it’s really a one-year deal” funny stuff. The Browns committed to both players, and spent $15 million in signing bonuses to do so -- $6 million for Dansby, $9 million for Whitner.

Here are the details:

Dansby was given $6 million to sign and will receive a $4 million guaranteed base salary this season. He’ll be paid $4 million in 2015 with half that guaranteed -- thus he signed for $12 million in guaranteed money. The final two years of the deal call for $5 million each year.

Total contract: Four years, $24 million.

Whitner received a $9 million signing bonus and a $2 million base salary this season that is guaranteed. He’ll be paid a $4.5 million base salary in 2015 that is guaranteed on the 15th day of the league year. Barring catastrophe, Whitner will be on the team both seasons, and thus is guaranteed $15.5 million.

Whitner's contract calls for $6.2 million in 2016 and $6.3 million in 2017.

Total contract: Four years, $28 million.

Clearly, since there are no machinations in the deals, the Browns believe in these guys.

And clearly, it’s understandable why they and their new teammates are smiling in this photo from Joe Haden’s Twitter feed (@JoeHaden23) that shows Jabaal Sheard, Josh Gordon and Haden welcoming them to the Browns:

Upgrades, replacement parts or both?

Did the Cleveland Browns take a step forward on the first day of free agency with their three signings, or did they merely bring in replacements for guys who left?

Maybe it depends on point of view.

The Browns lost an inside linebacker and receiver this offseason when they released D'Qwell Jackson and Davone Bess. They lost a safety when T.J. Ward signed with Denver as a free agent.

In free agency, they agreed with an inside linebacker in Karlos Dansby, agreed to an offer sheet with receiver Andrew Hawkins and agreed with safety Donte Whitner.

Out goes one, in comes another.

All the new guys are good players. Whitner and Dansby are aggressive guys who are not afraid to lead. Both are older than the guys they replaced, but both can play. Hawkins is younger than Bess, and (assuming the Bengals do not match the offer) is faster, more explosive and more dependable than Bess, who developed a good case of the dropsies in Cleveland.

Are the Browns better than they were on Tuesday? The team would say yes, that they have added explosive, aggressive players who can make impact plays on defense, in the passing game and on special teams. Too, the players signed -- while not "big-ticket" guys -- are good, dependable players. They are far better than just "guys" who fill the roster. They can play, and that's good.

But the argument can be made that because the Browns lost players at each of the positions, the team merely has filled holes. The players may be better, but it's not like upgrading from a college backup to Tom Brady. The two defensive guys lost contributed to the Browns the past few years. The new guys may be better, but they are better by degrees, not leaps and bounds. Still, by that measurement, the Browns improved. But they won't make significant steps forward until they add players to the mix, not remake the mix.

If the Browns take what they've done and add another good player or two, they will have taken a step forward. The draft awaits, and the Browns have more picks than some teams do in two years.

The first day of free agency was a start. It wasn't merely treading water. But it also wasn't a huge splash. It was a start.

But for a team that has a bunch of false starts the past few years, a start is something.
DeMarcus Ware, Jared Allen and Julius PeppersGetty ImagesHow will aging pass-rushers DeMarcus Ware, Jared Allen and Julius Peppers fare in free agency?

If you blinked Monday afternoon between the hours of 4 p.m. ET and 6 p.m. ET, you probably missed a few transactions during an intense open to the 2014 NFL free-agent market. By my count, 28 players agreed to terms on multiyear deals with new teams in about 120 minutes. Another dozen or so scheduled visits with teams they seemed likely to sign with.

A late-night round of action capped a remarkable day for the safety position. It also left available three Hall of Fame pass-rushers, strengthened the Atlanta Falcons, revealed the desperation of the Cleveland Browns and called into question the long-term plan (if there is one) of Oakland Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie.

Let's run through the highs, lows -- and everything in between -- on Day 1.
  • The frequency of agreements in the first few minutes of the open market revealed the reality of the preceding three-day "negotiating period." Plenty of under-the-table deals were completed long before 4 p.m. ET, despite rules to the contrary. I don't have a problem with it, to be honest. Discussions about contract parameters naturally lead to common ground. There's no reason to fight it, and the NFL might as well remove the stipulation "preventing" agreements during this period in future years.
  • As noted by ESPN Stats & Information, the class of 477 total free agents was the smallest since 2009 (444). That trend speaks to the growing number of players who re-signed with their existing teams before free agency began.
  • I don't think anyone would have guessed that six safeties would sign market-level deals in musical-chair fashion during the opening hours of free agency. But there was Donte Whitner signing with the Cleveland Browns, T.J. Ward moving from the Browns to the Denver Broncos and Antoine Bethea replacing Whitner with the 49ers. Later, Jairus Byrd signed with the New Orleans Saints to replace Malcolm Jenkins, who had agreed with the Philadelphia Eagles. Oh, and Mike Mitchell moved from Carolina Panthers to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Got all that?
  • [+] EnlargeByrd
    Tom Szczerbowski/Getty ImagesJairus Byrd was one of the many safeties who found a new home on Day 1 of free agency.
    Byrd's six-year, $54 million deal was the second-most lucrative for an unrestricted free agent on Day 1, based on the $9 million average per year (APY). When the week began, the Saints had about $3 million in salary-cap space, so for the moment it's a mystery how they can sign Byrd while still being in compliance. Trading running back Darren Sproles and restructuring some other deals would help. Regardless, the Saints couldn't pass up the opportunity to pair a three-time Pro Bowl player with rising star Kenny Vaccaro in their defensive backfield. Byrd has 22 interceptions since he was drafted in 2009. Only Asante Samuel (25) has more over that stretch.
  • Why were safeties valued so highly? (Other than Ward, each member of the group got at least $5 million annually.) I posed that question to Matt Williamson, who scouts the NFL for Williamson pointed to several reasons, including the increasing difficulty of devising schemes to face athletic tight ends. Many teams consider big safeties the best antidote, especially considering the prevalence of "12" personnel (one running back, two tight ends). Williamson believes defenses will continue countering "12" personnel with "big nickel" schemes that feature three safeties and two cornerbacks rather than the other way around. And finally, we can't forget that the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks have two stud safeties in Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor. Thomas, in fact, tweeted late Monday night: "Copy cat league."
  • I wonder if that new ideal for big defensive backs extended to cornerback Aqib Talib who pulled in a stunning haul from the Broncos that included $26 million guaranteed. Talib is excellent in coverage but is built like many safeties at 6-foot-1 and 205 pounds. Still, this qualifies as arguably the riskiest decisions of the day. In seven previous seasons, Talib has never played in all 16 games.
  • Almost all of the players who signed big deals Tuesday, and really over the past few weeks, were under 30 years old. That fact brings up a fascinating philosophical issue that will play out over the coming days: How much should a trio of Hall of Fame pass-rushers, all on the wrong side of that unofficial age limit, get paid? Julius Peppers (34) and DeMarcus Ware (31) were released Tuesday, while Jared Allen (31) is an unrestricted free agent. Of the three, Ware seemed most likely to cash in after his unexpected release. According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, the Denver Broncos were the favorites to sign him. But age and Ware's 2013 production decrease are all part of the negotiating pot.
  • Speaking of age, the Browns got older at safety and linebacker with their decision to sign Whitner and Karlos Dansby, respectively. Whitner is a year older than Ward, while Dansby is two years older than D'Qwell Jackson. Dansby will turn 33 in November and the Browns still guaranteed him $14 million. It's rare in this NFL climate to see that combination of numbers. The Browns were in a hurry on Tuesday. To do what? I'm not entirely sure, but to do something.
  • The Falcons took a step toward a more traditional 3-4 defense by signing a true nose tackle in Paul Soliai and a big defensive end in Tyson Jackson. Anyone who watched the Falcons' defense last season knows it needed to get stronger up front; they allowed the second-highest average per rush (5.0) on carries between the tackles last season. The Falcons paid handsomely to fix that problem, giving Soliai more than $6 million annually and Jackson about $5 million, but they filled an important need.
  • The Falcons' spending was overshadowed in their own division by the Saints' acquisition of Byrd and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' spending spree. The Bucs remade their defense in a hurry by signing defensive end Michael Johnson, defensive tackle Clinton McDonald and cornerback Alterraun Verner. Coach Lovie Smith has final say over personnel, and it's pretty clear he didn't want to wait until the draft to get to work.
  • Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie is operating 180 degrees from mentor Ted Thompson, who spends his money almost exclusively to retain internal prospects. McKenzie, armed with more than $60 million in salary-cap space, allowed two of his young players to leave and gave one of the biggest contracts of the day to an offensive lineman the St. Louis Rams were willing to part ways with. The Arizona Cardinals poached left tackle Jared Veldheer with a contract that was lower in value (about $7 million annually) than what McKenzie paid to sign guard/tackle Rodger Saffold (more than $8 million annually). McKenzie also let the Chicago Bears sign defensive end Lamarr Houston and the New York Giants sign running back Rashad Jennings. I'm willing to be patient and see what else McKenzie might have planned, but I'm not sure if owner Mark Davis will be. (Update: Overnight, the Raiders signed offensive tackle Austin Howard to a contract that included $15 million guaranteed, per Schefter. They also made plans to host free agent defensive end Justin Tuck and linebacker LaMarr Woodley.)
  • As expected, receivers paid the price for what is expected to be a deep draft class. All seemed quiet with Eric Decker, Hakeem Nicks, James Jones and most of the other veterans available. Only Golden Tate, who had a visit scheduled with the Detroit Lions, seemed to get any action.
  • At the moment, at least, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh appears to be in good standing with the team. He has been given a chance to rebuild quarterback Blaine Gabbert, whom the 49ers acquired from the Jacksonville Jaguars for a sixth-round pick. Harbaugh also got another ex-Stanford player when left tackle Jonathan Martin was acquired from the Miami Dolphins. Both of those moves have Harbaugh's fingerprints all over them.
  • I can hardly wait for Day 2.
The San Francisco 49ers went into free agency wanting to keep their own free agents because they feel so strongly about their roster.

They re-signed receiver Anquan Boldin and kicker Phil Dawson. However, the plan got off course Tuesday morning when safety Donte Whitner decided to sign with his hometown Cleveland Browns.

Realizing they need to keep the quality at the position, the 49ers quickly decided to change course and became outside players in free agency by signing respected Colts safety Antoine Bethea, who has started 96 straight games.

While Bethea is not a true knock-your-block off strong safety like Whitner, he is a comparable player. Whitner is getting $28 million over four years in Cleveland and Bethea is getting $23 million for four years, according to ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter. They were both ranked as the third-best free agents in their respective divisions by

Like Whitner, Bethea is smart, good in the locker room, with the media and in the community.

He should be a good fit with a strong defense, and I don't see the unit taking a dip without Whitner. Bethea brings experience, durability and savvy to the 49ers. Whitner had five penalties last season, while Bethea was not penalized once.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Bethea has recorded 100 tackles in each of his last four seasons and five of the past six seasons. He has 804 tackles since entering the NFL in 2006. It's the most by a defensive back in that time span.

It's clear the 49ers are simply not just plugging a hole here. They are getting a quality player. That was considered a given when word started to spread that Whitner would not return.

ESPN analyst Matt Williamson said he thinks Bethea can help the 49ers.

"He is not a pure strong safety type, but definitely better near the line of scrimmage than in deep coverage," Williamson said. "He is better than a stop-gap signing ... He is durable and reliable. He has been a rock on the back end for the Colts and demonstrates good range in the deep zones, but is probably best as a Cover 2 safety. He is more than adequate in the run game, but isn't a knock-out type hitter."

Again, Whitner is a good player, but the 49ers were smart to replace him with cheaper player who is also productive. Overall, this defense won't likely falter because of the move.

Remember, the 49ers lost safety Dashon Goldson in free agency last year. First-round pick Eric Reid came in and was an upgrade. Bethea could potentially offer the same effect.
From the Boss to The Hit Man. Or something like that.

The Cleveland Browns chose not to sign T.J. Ward before he hit the free-agent market, then agreed to terms with Donte Whitner to replace him. Both are high-impact hitters known more for physical play than coverage, but in Whitner the Browns may have upgraded.

Which is saying something because Ward -- whose Twitter handle is @BossWard43 -- was pretty good in 2013.

Whitner -- who calls himself "Hitner" -- is a Cleveland native, a product of Ted Ginn at Glenville High School. He's also an Ohio State guy.

He's leaving a team that's been to the last three NFC Championship games and the Super Bowl for one that hasn't won more than six games in any of the last six seasons. To agree to join the Browns he was given a reported four-year, $28 million deal, an average of $7 million per season -- or $2 million less than Buffalo's Jairus Byrd wanted.

Whitner has been in the league eight seasons but is only 28 -- one year older than Ward. He's joining his third team after playing for Buffalo and San Francisco.

Though he's similar to Ward, most NFL folks feel the move is an upgrade because Whitner is slightly better in coverage. He has 10 interceptions in eight seasons, while Ward has five in four. Whitner has been to two Pro Bowls, Ward one.

The move may not have a dramatic impact on the Browns because one safety is replacing another. But it does give the Browns an aggressive safety who is quick to the ball -- though one whose aggressiveness has led him to occasional mistakes.

In signing Whitner and inside linebacker Karlos Dansby, the Browns replaced departed players, so in a sense they're treading water -- and getting older in both spots.

But the team likes the aggressiveness Dansby and Whitner bring and believe they are upgrades.
The San Francisco 49ers’ second veteran free-agent re-signing was another 2013 acquisition who shined.

Kicker Phil Dawson tweeted Tuesday he is returning to the 49ers. He was minutes from becoming a free agent. Dawson joins receiver Anquan Boldin, who signed last week, as key veterans who are coming back.

The 49ers traded for Boldin and signed Dawson last year. Both were smashing successes in San Francisco.

Dawson, 39, made a team-record 27 straight field goals during the regular season. He also made several in critical situations and was a fit in the locker room.

Dawson was always coming back. Both sides wanted to make it happen. In fact, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said "pay the man" when referring to Dawson's impending free agency in a news conference.

The front office listened, and the 49ers will continue to have reliability at the kicker position.

The team’s other two free-agent priorities are safety Donte Whitner and cornerback Tarell Brown. There have been reports that Whitner will sign with his hometown Cleveland Browns when free agency starts at 4 p.m. ET. Brown will also get interest.
Bill Barnwell of offers a tidy, thumbnail plan for the San Francisco 49ers in free agency.

Below is Barnwell’s plan and my thoughts on it:

Estimated Cap Space: $10,021,111

Likely Cuts: CB Carlos Rogers

Who They Should Keep: CB Tarell Brown, K Phil Dawson

Who They Should Sign: CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, CB Asante Samuel, S Louis Delmas

Did you know the largest cap hit on the 2014 San Francisco 49ers belongs to, of all people, Rogers? The 49ers would clear $5 million off their cap by releasing Rogers, a move likely to occur despite San Francisco’s relative lack of depth in the secondary. Signing the younger, more talented Rodgers-Cromartie makes more sense, with Samuel filling in as depth and Delmas replacing the departing Donte Whitner. The Niners are sufficiently deep elsewhere to stay out of free agency, although they will certainly sneak in after a couple of weeks if they see a bargain lurking unsigned.

My take: What sticks out to me is the Rodgers-Cromartie thought. If the 49ers can get him, they should jump at it. He would be an upgrade and a fine fit for the defense. But I think he could get a big deal somewhere. I think Whitner is a better player than Delmas, and the 49ers should concentrate on keeping him. But if Whitner’s market is too high, then Delmas could be a solid replacement.