I love Bill Barnwell’s columns at Grantland. He’s never rigid in his points of view, but he’s always striving to get somewhere in his efforts and I appreciate that. He’s bit off a big chunk this time though.
Barnwell has taken an unpredictable NFL theme and tried to predict it. It hits on the Browns because he explores “The free agent who looked much better on the 49ers defense.” In 2013 the example was Dashon Goldson, who went to Tampa. In 2014, he wonders if it might be Donte Whitner joining the Browns.
The man who would be Hitner was surrounded by elite players during his run in San Francisco. With the likes of Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman among the best cover linebackers in football, Whitner was rarely used in coverage and got to spend most of his time attacking the line of scrimmage as a run-stopping safety. While he is still playing strong safety in Cleveland and should be a sound run-stopper in that role, it’s likely he’ll be used more frequently as a pass defender, when he often makes mistakes and bounces off receivers while trying to make that fateful big hit. The likes of Goldson, Takeo Spikes, and Aubrayo Franklin have all struggled to match their 49ers production after leaving as free agents. Whitner may very well be the next on that list.
Now first things first, Barnwell might turn out to be absolutely correct in surmising it might be Donte Whitner. There’s little doubt that Whitner had elite teammates alongside of him in San Francisco. As someone who closely follows the Browns, I’m going to suggest some reasons why it might not turn out that way.
First things first, the Browns upgraded middle linebacker with Karlos Dansby. That spot in the 3-4 defense is the captain of the defense and I’m hoping (along with Mike Pettine and Ray Farmer) that Dansby is an upgrade over D’Qwell Jackson. Beyond D’Qwell and whomever was playing alongside him last year, it’s pretty tough to find giant upgrades on a defense.
Yes, San Francisco’s defense was good and very successful, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a defense as stocked on the line and pretty well-prepared in the secondary as the Cleveland Browns currently are. Donte Whitner should come in and be a part of it.
Barnwell’s astute at pointing out this trend. Past the 49ers we’ve seen it with other teams and can point straight to Paul Kruger as an example of a guy who struggled after he departed a more talented defense. Still, the Browns’ defense is one that is young, talented and on-the-rise. As the Browns enter their first year with a new, defensive-minded head coach in Mike Pettine, you kind of assume they’ll take a step forward and that Whitner will be a part of the solution, not a mis-applied Band-Aid.