A recent Yahoo! sports article suggests that Donte Whitner is the 49ers' most overrated player. While I think some fans are a bit too harsh on Whitner, I'd have to say that I agree with the Yahoo! article here. Some may say Vernon Davis' mercurial production over the past two seasons would earn him this dubious distinction, or that Joe Staley, the charismatic left tackle with a rose-colored reputation, earns more praise than he should; those are valid points. But the slow-footed, porous play of the secondary (and a crushing injury to Justin Smith) are what stick out from a 2012 postseason that left the 49ers just shy of a sixth Lombardi trophy.
A strong pass rush is great cologne for a stale secondary. That's not to say the 49ers' defensive backfield is "stale" per say, but it illustrates the significant impact a pass rush can have on the secondary. A front-seven wrecking crew that is comprised of four Pro Bowlers makes life a heck of a lot easier for the Niners' defensive backs. So when injuries made mere mortals of Justin Smith, Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks, the deficiencies of the Whitner, Culliver and some others became much more apparent.
Let's take a look at the Super Bowl, for example. There's some debate on who's to blame for the 56-yard Jacoby Jones touchdown in the Super Bowl. Whitner and Culliver seem to have conflicting opinions. As I see it, there was a clear communication breakdown; both deserve scrutiny, but Whitner was more to blame based on simple logic. Whitner claims that there was supposed to be man coverage on the outside, so he sat on Boldin's route out of the slot. The problem there is that Boldin is light-years slower than Jacoby Jones, and was already being covered underneath (pretty well, mind you) by Carlos Rogers. Whitner's instincts and common sense should have told him to shade to the outside and give Culliver help over top in covering Jones. Instead, Jones put a move on Culliver and darted down the field, while Whitner's focus on Boldin rendered him completely out of position to stop the blazing wideout.
Sure, that's just one play, but there were plenty of other times throughout the season where Whitner was caught with his pants down in coverage. This Bay Area Sports Guy article details those gaffes, and notes that Pro Football Focus rated Whitner as the 53rd-best safety in football, and 68th-best in coverage during the 2012 season. His ineptitude was made all the more glaring in light of Dashon Goldson's improvement in that category. Both were seen as coverage liabilities in 2011 but Goldson tightened up that part of his game, while Whitner's already suspect skills declined in 2012.
Getting back to the Yahoo! article, it goes on to suggest that Whitner's breakout 2011 season, penchant for highlight hits, ability in run support, and reputation as an "enforcer" of the defense overshadow his considerable shortcomings. Another interesting Bay Area Sports Guy article demonstrates, however, that his struggles weren't relegated to coverage, and that his accolades as an "enforcer" near the line are misplaced. Bay Area Sports Guy includes some in-depth statistical analysis done by Pro Football Focus, which shows that when Whitner played in the box his ability to stop opposing offensive players was pretty abhorrent. Among eligible safeties, Whitner ranked 44th of 55 in "stop percentage" when within eight yards of the line of scrimmage. In "total stop percentage", Whitner was even worse, ranking 48th.
Upon looking at the numbers and circumstantial evidence, it becomes pretty clear that the condemnation of Whitner's play is justified, even if harsh. The more intriguing aspect of all this is to see how it plays out this season, and what its implications are beyond 2013.
Can Whitner bounce back and refine his coverage skills? Will his flaws become even more magnified playing alongside rookie Eric Reid? He's in the final year of his contract, and it's already been reported by Matt Maiocco that Eric Reid is learning both safety positions. Clearly, the 49ers are doing their homework and looking at their options to ensure they're prepared. With a plethora of cornerbacks on the roster, could Nnamdi Asomugha, Carlos Rogers, or Chris Culliver shift into a role at safety at some point in the future? These questions will certainly bear monitoring moving forward.
As far as Whitner being the 49ers most overrated player? If he is, it's a true testament to how strong the 49ers roster is. Whether it was justified or not, Whitner still made the Pro Bowl in 2012. He should have been selected in 2011: his best season as a pro. If a practically back-to-back Pro Bowl strong safety is the team's most "overrated" player, I'm sure the coaching staff isn't losing much sleep over it.