Whitner led NFL DBs in tackles with Bills in 2010
Donte Whitner knows how to make a first impression. He also knows how to make a lasting impression. The impressions were all good Saturday when Whitner stepped on the field for the first time with the 49ers and immediately began demonstrating why he’s already being considered a new leader on the team’s defense and a missing piece that could thrive in new coordinator Vic Fangio’s 3-4 system.
First thing’s first. In his debut practice, Whitner wasted no time showing everybody why the frugal-minded 49ers showered the sixth-year veteran with a three-year, $11.75 million contract with $4 million guaranteed, the biggest deal the Niners awarded any free agent this year besides their own homegrown product Ray McDonald.
Choosing the 49ers over the Cincinnati Bengals, whom Whitner said offered him a similar deal, the newest Niner joined the team and immediately began looking a lot like the productive veteran who blossomed last year in his final season with the Buffalo Bills, when Whitner led all NFL defensive backs with 140 official tackles, an astounding number for a player who lines up in the secondary.
“He looked exceptionally quick today and seemed like he had a real nose for the football,” 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. “He stood out in today’s practice and in quite a few places in my eye.”
Whitner stood out as an aggressive in-the-box safety last year after Buffalo moved to a 3-4 system similar to San Francisco’s. He finished fifth in the NFL in tackles and also had a career-high seven passes defensed while starting all 16 games for the first time with the team that selected him with the No. 8 overall pick in the first round of the 2006 NFL draft.
Whitner, 26, was ready to move on after that career year, and he was all but signed and delivered to Cincinnati earlier this week until an 11th-hour phone call by Harbaugh swayed Whitner to reconsider and bring his talents to San Francisco.
“It was a change of heart,” Whitner said. “I thought I was going to be a Cincinnati Bengal, but coach called me and told me that they have a young secondary here and he’d like me to come help lead this secondary. I weighed my options, Cincinnati or San Francisco, and I felt like San Francisco was the better choice – better football team, better chance to win.”
To be sure, the 49ers incrementally improved their chances of becoming a winning defense by filling a big void in their secondary with a player who appears to be an ideal fit for Fangio’s version of the 3-4, which has a more attacking approach than the 3-4 scheme employed by previous defensive coordinator Greg Manusky.
Harbaugh already had seen enough on film to know what Whitner can bring on the field, but their late telephone conversation also convinced the coach that Whitner was the right guy for the 49ers and the job of leading the team’s young secondary.
“It was a down-to-earth conversation,” Harbaugh said. “I found him to be a down-to-earth good guy, experienced football player, a ball guy, somebody that can come into our defensive room and provide leadership of the type of a guy that’s a professional. That’s been his reputation and we’ve made quite a few calls to other coaches who have coached him, and players who have played with him, and that’s really consistently on all levels, that’s what’s come back: A heck of a football player, but also somebody who’s a mature, professional kind of guy that I think will be really good in our defensive room.”
Whitner welcomes the responsibility that comes with his new role as the most experienced and highest-paid safety on the team, and he’s eager to become the veteran leader of San Francisco’s revamped secondary that is missing two 16-game starters from last season. His presence will be a boon to the entire defensive unit, which is missing five starters from last season, including free safety Dashon Goldson and cornerback Nate Clements.
“Donte’s a great player and it’s good to have a seasoned vet out here,” said Reggie Smith, who will move to free safety and team with Whitner in the staring lineup. “He’s been in the league a while and there’s probably a lot of stuff I can learn from him. He’s going to help us a lot here.”
Whitner is helping already.
“We have a lot of work to do on the back end, and I think everybody here knows it,” Whitner said. “We know it in the secondary, and we’re looking forward to it. I’m taking responsibility for getting this secondary in San Francisco to be one of the top secondaries in the league. We’re a long way from that right now, but we’ll get there.”
And now the Niners are a little closer with an established safety like Whitner in the fold.