The San Francisco 49ers went into free agency wanting to keep their own free agents because they feel so strongly about their roster.
Realizing they need to keep the quality at the position, the 49ers quickly decided to change course and became outside players in free agency by signing respected Colts safety Antoine Bethea, who has started 96 straight games.
While Bethea is not a true knock-your-block off strong safety like Whitner, he is a comparable player. Whitner is getting $28 million over four years in Cleveland and Bethea is getting $23 million for four years, according to ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter. They were both ranked as the third-best free agents in their respective divisions by ESPN.com.
Like Whitner, Bethea is smart, good in the locker room, with the media and in the community.
He should be a good fit with a strong defense, and I don't see the unit taking a dip without Whitner. Bethea brings experience, durability and savvy to the 49ers. Whitner had five penalties last season, while Bethea was not penalized once.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, Bethea has recorded 100 tackles in each of his last four seasons and five of the past six seasons. He has 804 tackles since entering the NFL in 2006. It's the most by a defensive back in that time span.
It's clear the 49ers are simply not just plugging a hole here. They are getting a quality player. That was considered a given when word started to spread that Whitner would not return.
ESPN analyst Matt Williamson said he thinks Bethea can help the 49ers.
"He is not a pure strong safety type, but definitely better near the line of scrimmage than in deep coverage," Williamson said. "He is better than a stop-gap signing ... He is durable and reliable. He has been a rock on the back end for the Colts and demonstrates good range in the deep zones, but is probably best as a Cover 2 safety. He is more than adequate in the run game, but isn't a knock-out type hitter."
Again, Whitner is a good player, but the 49ers were smart to replace him with cheaper player who is also productive. Overall, this defense won't likely falter because of the move.