Donte Whitner was a hitter in the 49ers secondary.
The veteran safety often set the tone for the defense with knockout shots on running backs and receivers, such as his hit on the Saints’ Pierre Thomas early in San Francisco’s playoff victory over New Orleans in January of 2012.
As a starting safety in the 49ers defense, Whitner was a key as San Francisco made three straight trips to the NFC Championship Game.
But now that Whitner has signed a free-agent deal with the Browns, the 49ers have replaced him with a much different player in Antoine Bethea.
Bethea may not show up in as many highlights as Whitner for his hitting ability, yet Bethea is a smart, fundamentally sound safety who should make a seamless transition to the 49ers’ secondary.
Bethea, 29, played every game for the Indianapolis Colts for six straight seasons before signing a four-year deal worth a potential $23 million with San Francisco on the first day of free agency last week, the same day Whitner signed with Cleveland.
Twice, Bethea has been selected to the Pro Bowl.
“Antoine is a durable, experienced player who has competed at a high level throughout this career in the National Football League,” said 49ers GM Trent Baalke. “He has proven to be a man of high character and is a welcome addition to our team.”
Bethea, who is 5-foot-11 and 206 pounds, was a sixth-round pick of the Colts out of Howard University in 2006.
Last season, he had two interceptions, six passes defensed, a sack and 110 tackles – the sixth straight season he’s had at least 95 tackles. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Bethea’s 804 tackles since 2006 are the most in the NFL by a defensive back.
He also has 14 career picks and is notable for being a clean player – no penalties in 2013 cmpared to Whitner’s five unnecessary roughness calls – and for being a less dynamic hitter than Whitner but equally skilled.
“He is not a pure strong safety type, but definitely better near the line of scrimmage than in deep coverage,” ESPN analyst Matt Williamson said after the signing. “He is better than a stopgap signing – he is durable and reliable. He has been a rock on the back end for the Colts and demonstrates good range in the deep zones, but is probably best as a Cover 2 safety. He is more than adequate in the run game, but isn’t a knockout-type hitter.”
Kevin Lynch of the San Francisco Chronicle also noted, however, that Whitner rated better as a pass defender in 2013 than did Bethea. According to Pro Football Focus, Whitner allowed only two touchdowns and a 66.8 passer rating on throws targeting him; Bethea allowed four TDs and a 111.7 passer rating.
Yet Bethea was a key player for the Colts as a rookie starter when Indianapolis won a Super Bowl, and helped the Colts reach another Super Bowl during his tenure.
“One of the reasons I’m here in San Fran, to try to get another ring,” Bethea told the media after signing. “That’s what I’m here to do.”