The Cleveland Browns got the safety they were looking for just moments after free agency began. It just wasn’t the guy everyone was expecting.
Donte Whitner is going home to Cleveland.
For weeks, speculation had the Browns connected to Buffalo Bills safety Jairus Byrd. At the very least, it seemed as though they would re-sign T.J. Ward. Instead, Whitner was late to the race but finished first in the Browns’ eyes.
So what exactly are the Browns getting in Whitner?
He is 28 years old but has already played eight seasons in the NFL. In the last four years, he missed just one game. He has averaged 62 tackles per season throughout his career and intercepted 10 passes, including five in the last three years.
Whitner is known as a big hitter. In 2013, he ranked eighth in the NFL among safeties against the run, according to ProFootballFocus.com. They also ranked him fifth against the pass, allowing just two touchdown passes all season, which made it his best year as a pro.
Maybe he is getting better with age.
He will replace Ward, who had a similar reputation for hitting but only one full season of high-level production. According to ProFootballFocus.com, Ward was the best safety in the NFL against the run in 2013 and a “quality cover man.”
The other difference between the two men is price tag. If the Browns would have hit Ward with the franchise tag, he would have made just over $8 million next season. Presumably, this is a number similar to what he is looking for.
According to Mary Kay Cabot of The Cleveland Plain Dealer, Whitner signed a four-year, $28 million deal with the Browns. His $7 million per season should be less than what Ward will make on the open market.
More importantly, the Browns are getting a leader. Ward had developed into one of the more vocal leaders on the defense, but being vocal and passionate only goes so far. At some point the leaders need to have experience winning at the highest level. The past two seasons Whitner has been a Pro Bowler and his team has made it to the conference championship game and beyond.
Between him and linebacker Paul Kruger, there is now legitimate championship level experience leading the defense.
Moments after signing with the Browns, the former Ohio State Buckeye and Cleveland high school product tweeted out his excitement.
O-H-.......— DonteHitner (@DonteWhitner) March 11, 2014
So the Browns now have Whitner and Tashaun Gipson as their safeties and still plenty of ammo to continue bolstering their defense. There are reports that they are pursuing a trade for cornerback Darrelle Revis and have already inked a replacement for D’Qwell Jackson at linebacker.
Karlos Dansby is set to join the Browns on a four-year, $24 million deal, according to multiple reports.
The only thing that keeps this signing from being an “A” grade is Whitner's age. While he is young in normal years, he is quite old in football years. It would be very surprising if Whitner were to make it to the end of his four-year contract. For the next year or two, however, he will act as a respected, vocal leader who makes big-time plays in the run game.