The San Francisco 49ers have already taken a hit in free agency, watching Donte Whitner sign with the Cleveland Browns. In retrospect, it was inevitable. CSN Bay Area’s Matt Maiocco reported that the 49ers weren’t offering Whitner more than $4 million a season, which wasn’t going to be enough to keep him.
That does leave the 49ers with a significant hole in the defensive backfield. As it stood Tuesday, C.J. Spillman would have been the presumptive favorite to start at strong safety for San Francisco. While Spillman is an excellent special teams player, he leaves a bit to be desired when it comes to actually playing in coverage. Spillman only had 70 snaps on defense last season, leaving him as a large question mark.
Too large. It was inconceivable that the 49ers wouldn’t bring in someone to compete with Spillman or Craig Dahl for the starting safety spot—they simply didn’t have the pedigree to be a real option entering the 2014 season.
That’s why the 49ers went out and signed Antoine Bethea, formerly of the Indianapolis Colts. Bethea was signed to a four-year deal with the team, totaling $21 million, according to The Sacramento Bee’s Matt Barrows.
The exact contract figures have been going back and forth all day—the deal was initially reported by Barrows at $26 million and has continued to fall. The final numbers, however, are still unclear. ESPN has the deal at $23 million, for example, and no one knows precisely how the contract is structured or where the guaranteed money lies.
The further it falls from Whitner’s deal—a four-year contract for $28 million—the better it looks for the team. Bethea is a step down from Whitner, but for over $1 million a year cheaper than Whitner, the deal makes a lot of sense for San Francisco.
Bethea isn’t as solid of a hitter as Whitner is, but he’s been solid for quite some time as a starting safety, playing both free and strong safety over the course of his career. He’s a two-time Pro Bowler, though he hasn’t earned that distinction since 2009.
Bethea’s an in-the-box-style safety with incredible durability—he’s started 96 straight games. What he brings to the team, first and foremost, is consistency. He’s unlikely to miss time or make too many major mental mistakes.
He’s a veteran presence in a secondary that desperately needed one. The other three projected defensive backs have a grand total of 23 career starts between them. While Eric Reid, Tramaine Brock and Chris Culliver all have greater potential than Bethea at this point in his career, there’s something to be said for experience.
Bethea can help continue Reid’s development and take over the role of leader of the secondary for a few seasons, so there’s definitely some value here. Is he the best value out there, though, or would the 49ers have been better off paying the extra money for Whitner?
Until the exact contract details come out, that’s a hard question to answer. It’s likely that Bethea has less guaranteed money than Whitner managed to grab. That would imply the team views Bethea as more of a stopgap solution—a sign that it would go out and draft someone like Deone Bucannon to take over the starting role eventually.
If the contract is back-loaded, the deal makes a lot of sense. If, however, there’s a lot of guaranteed money, it becomes harder to justify.
Bethea graded out much worse than Whitner did, according to Pro Football Focus’ advanced charting stats. Whitner graded out as the sixth-best safety, with Bethea falling all the way down to No. 53, thanks to rather horrific pass-coverage numbers.
Opposing quarterbacks put up a 103.1 QB rating when targeting Bethea last season, as he allowed 22 receptions on only 33 targets. Whitner, by comparison, allowed only a 66.8 QB rating. For that matter, Whitner also graded out higher stopping the run—PFF (subscription required) gave Whitner a plus-3.9 grade in the run game, while Bethea scored down at plus-1.9.
That’s not to say Bethea is not a solid starter. The Colts will miss him significantly. Furthermore, it’s possible 2013 was a one-year fluke—his numbers were better in previous years. He also has the benefit of playing behind the 49ers’ great front seven, which is going to make any defensive back look several degrees better.
The one area where Bethea is absolutely an upgrade over Whitner, without any question, is in penalties. Bethea received zero flags in 2013 and only two in the year before that. Whitner, on the other hand, received eight flags last season alone, including five unnecessary roughness calls. Combine Bethea with Reid’s zero penalties in 2013, and you have a pretty darn good tandem there.
This is definitely a downgrade, and if this is the end of what San Francisco does this offseason, it’s a bad deal. The 49ers likely had the cap room to re-sign either Whitner or Tarell Brown. If they take the savings they get from singing Bethea and use them to lock Brown up, the move becomes a lot better.
I also would have preferred someone like Mike Mitchell, whom The Sacramento Bee reported the 49ers were looking at prior to the Bethea signing—he’s younger and better in pass coverage than Bethea is at this point. It’s not that I don’t think Bethea is capable of holding down the position, I just wonder if he was really the best option for the team.
This does lower the need for the 49ers to take a safety in the draft, though it’s still a real possibility. This rules out a trade into the middle of the first round for someone like Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. Rather, the team should be content to sit and take someone of value later in the draft.
The 49ers are still likely to pick up a safety at some point in this year’s draft, however. Bethea will be 33 by the time the deal expires, so at some point, the position will need to be addressed. The signing gives the club time to develop a player, rather than plugging someone into the lineup immediately.
The 49ers could wait until the third or fourth rounds and pick up someone like Terrence Brooks of Florida State or Jonathan Dowling of Western Kentucky. Alternatively, they could hope Jimmy Ward of Illinois or Deone Bucannon of Washington State falls to them in the second round. They can afford to wait until they find a player they really love, rather than drafting to fill a hole. That’s a good position to be in.
When it all shakes out, however, it looks like Bethea will be your 2014 starter. Set aside the money issues and whether or not Whitner could have been re-signed, and you’re left with a solid starter, stout against the run game, to bring a veteran presence to the lineup. You just have to wonder if he was really the best the team could do.
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