For three seasons now, the 49ers have been able to count on Whitner's veteran presence in the secondary. However, Whitner’s contract is set to expire March 11, and it's far from certain that the 49ers will be able to bring him back.
The defensive backfield is clearly more formidable with Whitner still in uniform, but performance will hardly be the issue in his negotiations. The problem for general manager Trent Baalke simply boils down to a numbers game.
For his part, Whitner has gone out of his way to express his desire to stay in San Francisco, via his verified Twitter account:
Great season faithful! We appreciate all of you! Hopefully I'm back next year so we can finish this thing! Much love #Hitner!!!!— DonteHitner (@DonteWhitner) January 20, 2014
RT if you want me to retire as a #Niner!— DonteHitner (@DonteWhitner) January 24, 2014
After earning a berth in each of the last two Pro Bowls and experiencing three deep playoff runs in San Francisco, why wouldn't Whitner be inclined to stay? His improved coverage skills and hard-hitting reputation have served him well thus far in defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s unit.
Kevin Lynch of SFGate.com recently told B/R's Adam Lefkoe that he believes the 49ers have a "good chance" of retaining Whitner, even calling him a priority after his success this past season:
However, this level of play has also vaulted Whitner near the top of a thin free-agent class at safety, as noted by Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com. Both Maiocco and Nick Mensio of Rotoworld.com list Whitner with Buffalo's Jairus Byrd and Cleveland's T.J. Ward as the top three available at the position.
While Maiocco's report opens the door to Byrd and Ward receiving the $8 million franchise tag from their respective teams, Whitner is expected to hit the open market.
With other key contributors such as wide receiver Anquan Boldin and kicker Phil Dawson also vulnerable, the franchise tag number is far too high for San Francisco. Should his main competition be retained from the market, Whitner's value would climb even further on a standard contract.
The 2015 offseason will also present a difficult salary cap crunch with even more key players coming off the books.
Players such as linebacker Aldon Smith, wide receiver Michael Crabtree and quarterback Colin Kaepernick will all be due for new deals after next season. Cornerback Chris Culliver, nose tackle Glenn Dorsey and guard Mike Iupati will also be free to test the market.
This will leave the 49ers with a lot of money to spend and limited cap space to use for all of it.
Recent history has also shown a consistent free-agent approach under Baalke’s watch, never wavering to overpay a player. As seen with safety Dashon Goldson’s departure last offseason, the team simply won’t reach past its original assessment of value to compete with other organizations.
As one of the top safeties available for 2014, Whitner will undoubtedly be in high demand on the open market. The chances of the 49ers retaining him as the highest bidder are likely bleak at best, as noted by Vincent Frank of Yahoo! Sports.
While Lynch's assessment of Whitner as a player is accurate, the 49ers' priorities will make it tough to justify spending big money on a safety. After the success of drafting Eric Reid in the first round to replace Goldson last season, the 49ers could opt for a similar approach in 2014.
Jimmie Ward of Northern Illinois and Washington State's Deone Bucannon headline a list of draft-eligible strong safeties, according to CBSSports.com. At this stage in the evaluation process, both could be available in the second round.
Standing at 6'1" and 216 pounds, Bucannon in particular would represent a size advantage over Whitner, albeit with less top-end speed. With two second-round picks at their disposal, the 49ers would also most likely have a chance at selecting Bucannon at a reasonable spot.
Rob Rang of NFLDraftScout.com (via CBSSports.com) has highlighted Bucannon's ability for big hits in addition to his impressive build, while Frank compared Bucannon's tape to Whitner's playing style:
Doing a Deone Bucannon scouting report. Really don't want to, but only NFL comparison (for scouting sake) I come up with is Donte Whitner.— Vincent Frank (@VincentFrankNFL) February 12, 2014
While the 49ers have shown a reluctance to trust rookies in the past, both Reid's success and pure necessity could change that trend in a hurry. A weak free-agent class would not hold the answer, but smart drafting could help San Francisco save on a sizable contract for its incumbent safety.
Whitner would surely be a welcome sight on the field in red and gold next season, but the 49ers must consider the long-term cost as well. With much of the franchise's core hitting free agency in the near future, Whitner may simply be a luxury that they cannot afford.
Trusting a newcomer with such a critical role in the back end of the defense will surely be a gamble, but it's a gamble that the 49ers will have to make with their eyes set forward.
Tom Smeaton covers the San Francisco 49ers as a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report and can be found on Twitter at @smeaton49. All contract information, unless otherwise noted, according to Spotrac.