The Browns have continued their purge of veteran players, as they’ve announced the release of safety Donte Whitner. Tony Grossi of ESPN.com (Twitter link) was the first to report the news. Whitner himself alluded to the move earlier in the evening, tweeting “Cleveland I’m gone!”
“It is important for us to thank Donte for all of his contributions to the Cleveland Browns over the last two seasons,” said Browns executive vice president of football operations Sashi Brown in a statement. “His passion for this city and dedication to his craft was contagious. These are difficult decisions to make but we felt it was the best decision for the Browns at this time. We wish him the best as he continues his career.”
[RELATED: Browns waive CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu]
Whitner, who will turn 31 this summer, is the latest Brown to be released, as Cleveland also parted ways with linebacker Karlos Dansby and receiver Dwayne Bowe last month. Of course, those weren’t the only Browns who won’t be returning for the 2016 season, as the club has seen free agents Mitchell Schwartz, Alex Mack, Travis Benjamin, Tashaun Gipson, and Craig Robertson sign elsewhere over the course of the last month.
Cleveland has added a few players — namely quarterback Robert Griffin III, linebacker Demario Davis, and safety Rahim Moore — but the release of Whitner is sure to add fuel to the notion that the Browns are “tanking,” Agents complained last month that the club was hesitant in negotiations to bring back any of its internal free agents, and the team’s revamped front office, led by Brown and former MLB executive Paul DePodesta, has been under scrutiny for the entirety of the offseason. Whitner himself added a few parting shots (Twitter links), saying that Cleveland is playing “Moneyball” and that he would have preferred to be released earlier to get a head start on free agency.
Whitner will now hit the free agent market after playing out only two seasons of a four-year deal he signed with the Browns prior to the 2014 season. A former top-10 draft pick, Whitner started 30 games for Cleveland, posting more than 120 tackles and one interception over the past two years. In 2015, Whitner graded as the league’s No. 24 safety among 89 qualifiers, per Pro Football Focus.
The release of Whitner will save the Browns nearly $4MM against the cap, but the club will also incur a dead money hit of $4.5MM. Even after accounting for Whitner’s dead money, Cleveland would still have more than $30MM in cap space, so financially, the team can handle the hit. But it’s fair to wonder if the Browns will designate Whitner as a post-June 1 release, spreading his dead money out over the next two years ($2.25MM in both 2016 and 2017).
While most of the free agent money has already been spent, Whitner will vault to the top of the free agent safety rankings, where his only real competition is former Bengal Reggie Nelson. Walter Thurmond (who is contemplating retirement), William Moore, and Roman Harper make up the rest of the available class at the position, so any club still looking for safety help is sure to place a call to Whitner’s representatives. Because he was released, Whitner won’t factor into the compensatory pick formula, a positive for the team that signs him.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.