Donte Whitner

Strong early returns on 49ers’ Bethea-Whitner swap

Antoine Bethea Eric Reid

It’s only been two games, but the 49ers have to be happy with the decisions they made at strong safety this past offseason. Donte Whitner was an intimidating presence on the field and an invaluable resource in the locker room (for ink-stained wretches like myself), but the Browns lured him back to his home state with $15,500,000 guaranteed and the opportunity to make $28M over four seasons.

The 49ers probably valued the idea of “Hitner” more than the results. Whitner was much better in coverage last season than his very porous 2012, but the intimidation factor wasn’t worth all the penalties. Whitner often bragged about not getting fined later in the week for any of his unnecessary roughness calls, but the 49ers didn’t care. When it comes to flags or fines, the 49ers will vote for better field position every single week.

So they signed Antoine Bethea, not exactly a name that brings to mind highlight plays. He’s … dependable. He won’t kill your team, and he was flagged zero times last year (compared to Hitner, who was penalized seven times). He also came significantly cheaper. Whitner is the sixth-highest paid safety in terms of guaranteed money. Bethea is 15th at $9,250,000. If overall contracts are your thing (which shouldn’t be the case if you’re talking about the NFL, but whatever floats your boat), Bethea’s deal is for $21M over four years.

The 49ers saved a little money in hopes of spreading some loot around to other areas, and they got a safety who’s better than Craig Dahl. Alright, fine. Not exactly exciting, but that’s life in a capped sport.

Except the 49ers haven’t suffered at all with this change, and Bethea isn’t the steady-Eddie type of player a lot of us assumed he’d be. In fact, he’s got some Hitner in him, to the point where maybe he should change HIS name.

Maybe Beast-thea. Or Beat-thea. Or Best-thea. Or Beat-you-up-uh. Ugh, those are all dreadful — but at least they don’t bring a certain German dictator from the 1930s and ’40s to mind.

Bethea is also the highest rated safety after two games on Pro Football Focus, with excellent scores in both coverage and run support. It’s only two games, but Bethea came awfully close to an interception on Sunday, he has one pass deflection, and Tony Romo and Jay Cutler had a combined rating of 47.9 when targeting him. Whitner is currently 51st among safeties on PFF’s list, and quarterbacks have a rating of 90.0 when throwing his way. One good note for Whitner: no penalties, and the Browns have the same record as his previous team.

The 49ers have made a conscious effort to avoid paying their safeties top-10 money, and so far it’s worked out rather well. Whitner’s guaranteed money is sixth among safeties. Dashon Goldson is fifth at $18,000,000, and he was replaced by Eric Reid ($8,480,736 guaranteed — 19th among safeties) last year.

Here’s how those four rank in average salary (via Spotrac):

  • 4. Goldson ($8,250,000)
  • 8. Whitner ($7,000,000)
  • 17. Bethea ($5,250,000)
  • 33. Reid ($2,120,184)

PFF had Goldson ranked 81st out of 86 safeties last year. He committed six penalties and quarterbacks had a 121.4 rating when throwing in his direction. Reid was 16th overall in his rookie season, with no penalties and a 68.6 rating against.

You might think, “Hey, Homer Bailey. That’s a lot of positive spin for a team that gakked away a 17-0 lead on Sunday night.” That’s totally understandable, and if you’re looking for some reasons to rip the 49ers besides the obvious (penalties and turnovers), yesterday I explored just how bad their situation is at outside linebacker without Aldon Smith. But safety isn’t an issue, in terms of value or production.

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