So now cornerback Carlos Rogers joins secondary mates Donte Whitner and Tarrel Brown in the free agency pool.
With the 49ers’ announcement Monday that Rogers would be released, San Francisco now enters the free-agent signing period with 75 percent of its starting secondary (from the 2013 opener) on the market. If they get strong offers from other teams, the cornerback tandem of Rogers and Brown could be lost, as could starting safety Whitner.
But as Bill Williamson of ESPN.com noted Tuesday, the loss of Whitner would be the biggest blow. Because of Whitner’s strong play – and the shortage of good safeties on the free-agent market this season – it’s important for the 49ers to re-sign him, wrote Williamson.
In scanning the list of available free agents, Williamson writes that possible options to replace Whitner are ex-Raider Mike Mitchell of the Panthers, Malcolm Jenkins of the Saints and James Ihedgbo of the Ravens. In-house options would be C.J. Spillman and Craig Dahl. Though re-signing Whitner will be expensive, not re-signing him might be more costly to the 49ers’ defense in 2014.
“The free-agent market is thin, and, in my opinion, signing Whitner is, by far, the best option,” wrote Williamson, who covers the 49ers on a daily basis. “If not, one of the (free agents) could be a suitable, but not equal, signing. If Whitner’s market doesn’t get crazy, the 49ers need to try to keep him.”
Whitner, however, is being courted by the Cleveland Browns, and has been reported by some to be a sure addition to that struggling franchise. Albert Breer of NFL.com tweeted Tuesday morning that: “Drumbeat’s strong on Glenville and Ohio State alum Donte Whitner coming home to the Browns to anchor (coach) Mike Pettine’s secondary.”
According to Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee, Whitner made about $4 million per season over the past three years in San Francisco, and that’s about what the 49ers would like to pay him for 2014. It’s possible, however, that the Browns might go higher. With the Jets and Bears also reportedly interested in Whitner, it could quickly drive his price.
If that’s the case, the 49ers might be forced to stretch to retain their safety – at the cost of perhaps letting Brown or Rogers (or both) get away.
As Williamson pointed out, the market for free-agent corners is much deeper. The 49ers could add talent in the draft and free agency at cornerback to replace Roger and Brown, but there is a much slimmer cast of replacements for Whitner, who provides a physical presence in the secondary and helped rookie Eric Reid flourish in 2013.
“The 49ers are probably better off going with Whitner for a few more years,” wrote Williamson. “So while it could be tough to re-sign (him), keeping Whitner may be in the team’s best interest.”
Beginning at 1 p.m. Tuesday (PDT), when free agents can sign, the 49ers will have a better idea where they stand.