Since the Buffalo Bills drafted him eighth overall in 2006, Donte Whitner has had a fine NFL career. Through 105 games he has registered over 400 tackles and made countless defensive calls. He even made the Pro Bowl for the first time in 2012.

However, some critics weren’t as happy as the Pro Bowl voters when it came to Whitner’s game, particularly when it came to his performance in coverage. According to Pro Football Focus, Whitner allowed 42 receptions last year for 416 yards on 54 targets (77.8% comp). He also allowed 12 touchdowns and quarterbacks had a rating of 130.6 when throwing passes his way.

donte whitner sf 49ers practiceThis culminated in the Super Bowl, when Joe Flacco picked the 49ers’ secondary apart and Whitner and Chris Culliver blamed each other for a particularly long (and humiliating) Jacoby Jones touchdown reception after the game.

Culliver is out all season with a torn ACL, and Dashon Goldson is collecting huge paychecks and paying fines while playing for a horrendous and fragmented team in Tampa. Meanwhile, Whitner has made a name for himself with some nasty hits of his own this season. He also created a new name (Hitner) for himself in response to a recent $21K fine. All that makes it easy to ignore just how much better he has played this season.

Eric Reid has played extremely well in his first five games and shown rapid improvement, considering he’s a rookie. Whitner challenged Reid during the offseason, both physically (get up early and work out with me, kid) and mentally (make the calls during this series, kid). For a group that relies so much on strong communication, it was imperative that Whitner got Reid up to speed. By all appearances, the two work together really well for being paired up for less than a year.

Whitner isn’t just contributing with leadership and strong communication in the defensive backfield, he’s also covering. According to PFF, the guys who roasted Whitner last season, the 49ers strong safety has only allowed six receptions on 13 targets (46.2%) for 88 yards through five games. Quarterbacks have a rating of just 36.7 when targeting Whitner, almost 100 points lower than last year. No touchdowns can be blamed on Whitner’s coverage so far this year, and he also has an interception (matching his total from 2012) and two pass deflections (half his total from last season).

Overall, Whitner was the 53rd-ranked safety according to PFF in 2012 (Goldson was 20th). This season, Whitner is 5th, with Reid at No. 22 and Goldson all the way down to No. 39 (his biggest points deduction coming from penalties, which is no surprise). There’s been talk that with the NFL’s emphasis on “safety,” that Whitner’s career as one would come to an end shortly. Instead, Whitner is on his way to cashing in after the 2013 season.

That’s where things get dicey for the 49ers. The 49ers have plenty of big-money extensions on the horizon and very few members of their secondary under contract for next season. Tarell Brown, Nnamdi Asomugha, Tramaine Brock, Perrish Cox, Eric Wright, and Darcel McBath are all free agents in 2014, as is Whitner.