Veteran safety Donte Whitner wasn’t happy with the timing of his release from the Browns earlier this year, and he had every right to be upset. After Rodney McLeod, George Iloka, Eric Weddle, Tashaun Gipson, and a cadre of other safeties had already scored large contracts on the open market, Whitner hit free agency about three weeks after many clubs had already spent their free agent money. As such, Whitner will likely have to settle for a one-year deal in the coming weeks.
But Whitner, who will turn 31 years old later this month, is still a talented player, having graded as the league’s No. 24 safety among 89 qualifiers in 2015, per Pro Football Focus. He’s also remarkably durable, as he’s missed only three games over the past six seasons. As such, PFR recently ranked Whitner as the No. 1 free agent available on the defensive side of the ball, ahead of other players such as Leon Hall, Greg Hardy, and Dwight Freeney.
Let’s take a look at some potential landing spots for Whitner as he looks to ink a contract before (or during) training camp…
Carolina Panthers — Former fourth-round pick Tre Boston spent the first two years of his career as a special teams stalwart, biding his time behind Roman Harper while waiting for a starting opportunity. That time has come, but will Ron Rivera and the rest of Carolina’s coaching staff feel comfortable relying on Boston, who has just six starts to his name and has only averaged about 28% playing time over the past two seasons? After rescinding Josh Norman‘s franchise tag, the Panthers will have enough questions at cornerback without having to worry about their safety group, too. Adding Whitner to play opposite Kurt Coleman could help alleviate any concerns the club might have.
Dallas Cowboys — The Cowboys defense has taken its share of hits this offseason, with Rolando McClain, DeMarcus Lawrence, and Randy Gregory all facing multi-game suspensions. Dallas’ secondary has remained untouched, but second-year safety Byron Jones is the only above-average option projected to start in the club’s defensive backfield. Strong safety Barry Church has never been special, and the Cowboys didn’t select a safety in the draft until the sixth round (Central Michigan’s Kavon Frazier). If Tony Romo can stay healthy during the upcoming season, Dallas should return to contention in the NFC East, and Whitner could be the final piece of the puzzle on defense.
Detroit Lions — Lions general manager Bob Quinn has been adamant that his club will field a wide-open competition at strong safety, but the latest reports indicate the former Saint Rafael Bush holds the upper hand over fellow free agent signee Tavon Wilson and fourth-round rookie Miles Killebrew. Bush, though, hasn’t been able to stay healthy during his five-year NFL career. The 29-year-old ended the 2014 season on injured reserve with a broken leg, and missed all but one game last year after tearing a pectoral muscle. Wilson, meanwhile, never started a single contest for the Patriots despite being a former second-round pick, and played just 83 defensive snaps in 2015. All in all, it’s an unproven and untrustworthy group, and Whitner could represent a more sure thing.
Houston Texans — The Texans boasted one of the NFL’s best defensive units in 2015, so they don’t need to add a free agent like Whitner. Houston already had a poor encounter with a veteran free agent safety last season, as Rahim Moore was benched in early November before being released just one season into a three-year deal. But that experience shouldn’t scare the Texans off, as Whitner could add a hard-hitting force to a safety crop that possesses quantity, but perhaps not quality. Andre Hal looks like the club’s starter at free safety, but strong safety could be a toss-up between Eddie Pleasant, Quintin Demps, Antonio Allen, and rookie Kris Dillon. Whitner, for all his faults, looks to be an improvement over any of those options.
Jacksonville Jaguars — The Jaguars are going all-in on the 2016 season, and they spent the majority of their offseason upgrading their defense. After handing big-money deals to defensive lineman Malik Jackson and safety Tashaun Gipson, general manager Dave Caldwell spent all but one of his draft picks on defenders, using his first two to pluck cornerback Jalen Ramsey and linebacker Myles Jack. But after allocating all that capital, strong safety is still a weak spot on the Jags’ roster, as former second-round pick Johnathan Cyprien graded out as a bottom-three safety last year, according to PFF. As such, Cyprien is reportedly in danger of losing his job to James Sample, but perhaps Jacksonville would prefer a more stable veteran. And not for nothing, Whitner has working experience with Gipson, as the pair spent the past two seasons together in Cleveland.
Kansas City Chiefs — Even after losing one safety to free agency (Tyvon Branch) and another to retirement (Husain Abdullah), the Chiefs are still pretty well-stocked at the position. All Pro Eric Berry, the club’s franchise tag designee, will hold down one spot, while Ron Parker will man the other. But with Parker taking on so many other roles in Kansas City’s defense, including nickel corner, Whitner could make for a strong depth addition. It wouldn’t be a perfect match, however, as Berry does his best work close to the line of scrimmage — the same area that Whitner regularly patrols. The Chiefs are going to mess with Berry’s role to accommodate someone like Whitner, so the latter might have to be open to a reserve role.
Los Angeles Rams — The Rams are perhaps the most obvious fit on this list, especially given that they’re the only club with which Whitner has had a known visit. Whitner met with Los Angeles in the beginning of April, and though reports have indicated that he remains “in play” for general manager Les Snead & Co., the Rams might be cooling in their pursuit of veteran safeties. LA’s search for secondary help — which, in addition to Whitner, has involved fellow free agent Dashon Goldson — could be limited by the team’s desire to see how its younger options, such as Maurice Alexander, Cody Davis, and Christian Bryant, play out before adding a more experienced player. The Rams’ only safety with more than five career starts under his belt is T.J. McDonald, who could possibly be facing a suspension after being arrested for DUI earlier this year.
San Diego Chargers — San Diego has already replaced franchise legend Eric Weddle, agreeing to a deal with former Colt Dwight Lowery over the offseason. But strong safety remains a weakness — in his first season as a full-time starter, Jahleel Addae was below-average, ranking as the No. 76 safety in the league, per PFF. The Chargers ranked 25th in defensive DVOA last season, and were even worse specifically against the run, where they placed 31st. Whitner would help in that regard, assisting the front seven in rush defense while Lowery covers the back end. San Diego did assign Addae the second-round restricted free agent tender, so the club clearly values him, but none of his $2.553MM salary is guaranteed, so if the Chargers wanted to go in another direction, they could easily get out of that contract.
Others — Given that former 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio is now with the Bears, I initially pegged Chicago as a good fit for Whitner, given that the pair enjoyed success together in the Bay Area from 2011-13. However, the Bears selected two safeties in this year’s draft, and as Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune has written on multiple occasions, Chicago would like to see how those younger options play out, and is quite pleased with 2015 rookie Adrian Amos at strong safety.
The Ravens also struck me as a potential landing spot for Whitner, given that general manager Ozzie Newsome has a history of squeezing every last drop out of veteran free agents. But Baltimore already spent money on Eric Weddle this offseason, and even after offloading the troubled Will Hill, the club still boasts cornerback convert Lardarius Webb, former first-round pick Matt Elam, and Kendrick Lewis at safety, so it’s not exactly a position of need. Jamison Hensley of ESPN.com noted that the Ravens have long been fans of Whitner, but allowed that a signing was unlikely.
Finally, the Vikings are known to be looking for the perfect complement to Pro Bowler Harrison Smith, and even after inking Andrew Sendejo to a four-year deal and signing free agent Michael Griffin, the club still doesn’t sound confident with its options at strong safety. Whitner, then, would seem to be a potential fit, but as Ben Goessling of ESPN.com wrote last month, Minnesota is probably looking for a player who can handle pass coverage responsibilities given how often the team moves Smith around the formation. Whitner is not that guy, so perhaps the Vikes aren’t quite a perfect landing spot.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.