Donte Whitner San Francisco 49ers

Donte Whitner posted a photo of a bottle of champagne earlier today, and a little while later we found out why. According to a report by Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, Whitner will sign with the Cleveland Browns when free agency officially starts at 1 pm PST.

Eric Reid, who was mentored by Whitner throughout his rookie season, responded via Twitter:

As much as a lot of the people who cover the 49ers probably were in denial about this — myself included — the writing was probably on the wall when it came to Whitner’s future with the team. The 49ers didn’t place a transition or franchise tag on any of their free agents, and they locked up Anquan Boldin before March 8, when impending free agents could start talking with other teams.

In other words, there’s a decent chance Tarell Brown and Phil Dawson won’t be back either.

The 49ers are linked to a few free agent safeties: Mike Mitchell, Nolan Carroll and Antoine Bethea. Niners Nation has some “rival blogger” analysis on the first two here. I’ll stick with my initial prediction that the 49ers will also consider Malcolm Jenkins, who like Whitner was drafted pretty high in the first round and went to Ohio State.

Whitner gets to go back to his home state and enjoy a pretty sweet payday, since the Browns were $50 million under the cap heading into today. Ian Rapoport says the deal is for four years (which isn’t set in stone, of course) at an average of about $7 million per season. Matt Maiocco was told the “49ers didn’t want to go much above $4M annually.”

Whitner, 28, was a solid performer in San Francisco who showed flashes of greatness, although the 49ers probably got tired of the lapses in coverage at important times, as well as the all-too-frequent personal foul penalties that stemmed from his violent style of hitting. With Whitner gone, along with Brown and Carlos Rogers hitting free agency, the 49ers defensive backfield will look very different next season. And fans don’t care about this as much as media folks … but without three of the best interview subjects on the team, the secondary will probably be a lot quieter in 2014, too.