At the beginning of the 2014 offseason, I believed it was only a matter of time before Donte Whitner got exposed due to his age and diminishing speed. When he inked a four-year, $28 million contract with the Cleveland Browns, I thought the 49ers dodged a bullet.
San Francisco had an opportunity to get a younger, more talented strong safety to replace Whitner. Instead, it chose Antoine Bethea.
Statistically, he had a dismal season in 2013. He ranked 50th out of 86 qualified safeties, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required). We'll find out in 2014 if Bethea's 2013 was a product of a bad supporting cast putting him in tough spots or a result of age catching up to him.
Trent Baalke has a great track record with free agents, so feel free to bet on the former. And it makes sense to target a veteran. With mostly young and/or inexperienced defensive backs, including projected starters Eric Reid, Tramaine Brock and Chris Culliver, the 49ers wanted a safety who could lead the secondary if needed. Bethea could be that guy.
However, T.J. Ward received a nearly identical contract to Bethea's with the Denver Broncos. And Ward, coming off an outstanding 2013 season with Cleveland (fourth in PFF's safety rankings), is 2.5 years younger.
Maybe Ward is not ready to be the veteran leader of a secondary, but he's a better player than Bethea.
San Francisco drafted Jimmie Ward, who is destined to be a starting safety down the road, in the first round. The 49ers structured Bethea's four-year, $21 million contract in a way that he can easily be cut after two seasons. By then, Jimmie should be ready.
Denver structured T.J.'s contract in the same way (easy to cut after two years).
It looks like the Broncos got much better value. We'll have to revisit this in a couple of years to find out which team (49ers, Browns, Broncos) made the best decision.