The San Francisco 49ers have had quite an interesting offseason, as they had several key players that would be free agents during the offseason. The Niners needed to make decisions on whether to resign players like Anquan Boldin, Donte Whitner, and Tarrell Brown, which was made even tougher by their limited cap space and key contracts that are expiring next offseason that need to be dealt with.
A move that really surprised no one, Whitner decided to cash in a solid tenure with the Niners. It was a situation similar to last season, the Niners decided to part ways with one of their high priced safeties during free agency. Last year, the front office decide to let Dashon Goldson depart to a five-year deal worth more than $41 million, who they then replaced with first round pick Eric Reid.
The Niners’ front office is not know to overpay for free agents, especially at a position that they can easily find a cheaper, comparable replacement. That is what they have down during their last two offseasons.
It is hard to fault Whitner for leaving the Niners to head to Cleveland Browns. The Browns offered him a contract for four-years and worth $28 million with $11 million in guarantees. He is also heading home, as he was born and raised in Cleveland before going to college at Ohio State University in nearby Columbus. So, it is hard to blame the guy for taking the contract worth the most money when it comes from his hometown team.
It did put the Niners in a situation to act quickly to find a replacement for the veteran safety and quickly they did act, as they reportedly came to a contract agreement with veteran safety Antoine Bethea shortly after learning about Whitner’s deal with the Browns. On paper, the two players seem highly comparable, but is Bethea an upgrade or a downgrade from the departing Whitner?
The comparison between the two players is interesting, as they both came into the league in same draft class in 2006. Both players are roughly the same size and style of player, as they both have show an all-around ability, but they are better served playing “in the box.”
Bethea is excellent in run support and it showed in the fact that nearly 32 percent of his snaps came lined up near the line of scrimmage, while Whitner only lined up near the line roughly 21 percent of the time. Bethea is an extremely intelligent and decisive football player, as he is great at recognizing a run play or pass play, and he has the speed to come down hill and fill running lanes or go sideline to sideline.
He may not bring the same physical element that Whitner does with explosive hits, but he is a wrap-up tackler that does not miss many tackles. Bethea has raked up 806 total tackles over his career, including 349 during the last three seasons. His tackle numbers will probably diminish behind the front seven of the Niners, but he is the type of safety valve you want at the back end of the defense to clean up what the linebackers leave.
Much like his predecessor, Bethea leaves a lot to be desired in pass coverage. Looking at last year, everyone will say this where the Niners will see a downgrade, as Whitner graded out pretty well in pass coverage. They are forgetting that his previous two seasons Whitner was abysmal in pass coverage, which makes you think that last year’s increase was just a fluke.
In fact, Bethea has been the steadier hand on the back end of a defense for most of their careers. Bethea has 14 interceptions and 49 pass deflections in his career, while Whitner has 10 interceptions and 49 pass deflections. Whitner has 30 pass deflections in his last three years, while only recording 19 in his previous five seasons. You could make the logical assertion that being in the Niners’ defense has benefited Whitner greatly, as he is asked to fit into a system of great players. You could seem similar type of increase with Bethea, maybe not so extreme at his age, but being with a more talented supporting cast should increase his productivity.
The major difference the two is the contract situation. Whitner signed a four-year, $28 million contract with $11 million in guaranteed money compared to the four-year, $22 million contract with $6.25 million in guarantees. The Niners have more pressing financial issues coming up in the next couple of seasons and the financial flexibility provided by Bethea’s deal allows the team to invest in young talent. They can also get out of the deal with minimum financial penalties after just two years of the contract.
Overall, the Niners are better served by bringing in Bethea, instead of over spending for Whitner. Both players are extremely similar in their physical skills and NFL production. Replacing Whitner with Bethea should have a negligible effect on the defense and they should not see a major drop in productivity.
The one aspect that pushes this in favor for Bethea is the contract, as it carries less guaranteed money and less money overall. It also does not prevent them from looking for an eventually replacement in the next couple of offseasons. Bethea is a better fit for the Niners with their current situation.