Safety Donte Whitner has been a big part of the 49ers’ success the past three seasons.
But when the 2013 season came to a close with Whitner likely headed toward unrestricted free agency, the possibility of the 49ers keeping Whitner seemed 50-50 at best.
Now, however, it seems much more likely that Whitner may be staying in San Francisco.
With the start of the free-agency signing period less than two weeks away, the 49ers have more flexibility under the salary cap to make a play to keep their hard-hitting safety.
As Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee reported, the Niners have restructured the deal for backup safety Craig Dahl to gain more financial flexibility. According to Barrows, Dahl’s 2014 salary will drop from $1.35 million to $825,000. In addition, the 49ers recently gained another $755,000 by restructuring the contract of receiver Jonathan Baldwin.
“Sources at the Combine in Indianapolis said the 49ers are now more optimistic they can re-sign Whitner, one of the veteran leaders in the locker room, than they were before the Combine when they figured they would lose the veteran to a team with more salary-cap space,” wrote Barrows. “Whitner could still test the free-agent market. But he wants to be back with the 49ers, and there promises to be more room under the salary cap than previously expected.”
Of course, the 49ers have multiple players they’d like to re-sign, aside from Whitner, including wide receiver Anquan Boldin, kicker Phil Dawson and cornerback Tarell Brown. Also, they need to decide whether to lock up players such as quarterback Colin Kaepernick, linebacker Aldon Smith, guard Mike Iupati and even head coach Jim Harbaugh this offseason, even though their deals go through the 2014 season.
Whitner last season paired with rookie Eric Reid to give the 49ers a strong pair of safeties. Whitner had 73 tackles, 12 pass breakups, two forced fumbles and two interceptions.
Wrote Bill Williamson, who covers the 49ers for ESPN.com: “Whitner is an important piece. He had a good season in 2013 and his three seasons (he signed as a free agent in 2011) with the 49ers have been a success. He is good in the locker room and his aggressive play is a good fit with the defense.”
Williamson wrote that the 49ers could draft another young safety, as they did with Reid last year, but may be better off going with Whitner “for a few more years.”
“While it could be tough to re-sign, keeping Whitner may be in the team’s best interest,” he wrote.
And now, it seems, the 49ers have found some cap flexibility to aid the cause.