On Tuesday I wrote about how much better Donte Whitner has played this season compared to 2012, when he laid some lumber but also gave up a significant number of receptions and passing touchdowns. Instead of relying on the totally awesome crutch that Pro Football Focus provides, I figured I’d ask San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio about Whitner’s play.

Donte Whitner San Francisco 49ersHere’s how it went:

There’s been a lot of talk about Donte Whitner with the name change and certain hits. But, how would you assess his play this year? He’s integrated the rookie safety, and been pretty good in coverage it looks like.

“I think he’s played even better than he had last year when he made the Pro Bowl. He’s still tackling very well. He’s running our operation back there, as you alluded to, with a rookie. He’s just playing with a lot more confidence. And he’s playing a little bit faster. Again, third year in the system. I don’t know. It’s hard to say the guy’s playing better when he had a Pro Bowl season last year. But, he is playing better. And he’s really enjoying playing. He’s having a lot of fun and he’s kind of become a leader of the secondary, and a leader on the team.”

Since the only young safety on the roster that holds any real promise, Eric Reid, is already in the starting lineup, one has to wonder whether the 49ers can afford to let “Hitner” walk next year. If someone really wants to overpay — like Tampa Bay did with Dashon Goldson’s ridiculous contract — then the 49ers might not have a choice other than to let him walk and play the free agency market in hopes of finding a bargain at strong safety. But Goldson, while valued by the 49ers during his time in San Francisco, wasn’t considered a leader to the extent that Fangio described today with Whitner.