Safety Donte Whitner (No. 31) was signed by the 49ers to be the cornerstone of a revamped secondary. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
In the 49ers’ off-season quest to upgrade their secondary, they targeted safety Donte Whitner, then went after him hard, signing him just as he appeared ready to complete a deal with Cincinnati.
Whitner reversed field at the last moment when he got a call from new head coach Jim Harbaugh to come to San Francisco.
“I thought I was going to be a Cincinnati Bengal,” Whitner told the San Francisco Chronicle last month. “But (Harbaugh) called me and told me that they have a young secondary here and he’d like me to come help lead this secondary.”
On Sunday, Whitner gets the chance to show what kind of impact he can have.
Whitner, 26, the No. 8 overall pick in the 2006 draft out of Ohio State, will start at strong safety for San Francisco against the Seattle Seahawks at Candlestick Park.
The free-agent from Buffalo ranked fifth in the NFL with 140 tackles in 2010, the most by a defensive back. He came to San Francisco in part because he believes new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s 3-4 defense will be aggressive and he can play a dominant role in it.
“I think here in this mold they’re going to have me do sort of what (Steelers’ Troy) Polamalu does, and I’m looking forward to it,” he said in early August. “I’m looking forward to being able to disguise the blitz and really fool with quarterbacks.”
Fangio told reporters this week he expects Whitner “to be kind of the quarterback of our secondary.”
Though he’s a physical safety and a strong tackler, at times Whitner was criticized for his coverage skills with the Bills, for whom he had five interceptions in 66 starts. According to one report, Whitner allowed 38 completions on 53 attempts against him for 501 yards and 10 TDs in 2010, and was the targeted defender on more TD passes than any other player in the league.
On Sunday, those skills will be tested against tight end Zach Miller, the former Raider.
Whitner says he’s up to the challenge, especially after working against Niners tight end Vernon Davis every day in practice.
“He’s a really good tight end in this league,” Whitner says of Miller, “but I think I see the best tight end in the National Football League here each and every day.”
On Sunday, Whitner will be part of a new-look 49ers secondary, expected to include Madieu Williams at free safety (with Dashon Goldson out with a knee injury) and Tarell Brown expected to start at corner for the injured Shawntae Spencer. Carlos Rogers will be the other corner.