Here at Niners Nation, we're presenting a series called "90-in-90". We'll be looking at every player on the 49ers offseason roster, one player per post, from now until the start of training camp.
Donte Whitner has been a leader of the 49ers secondary the last two seasons, and it will be particularly important he lead in 2013 with the departure of Dashon Goldson. Over the past two years, Goldson was the big hitter coming out of center field, while Whitner has proven much more adept at filling the in-the-box run stopper role. The 49ers let Dashon Goldson depart in free agency, and will look to fill his shoes with rookie Eric Reid. While Whitner does not have the physical tools to play all over the field, he will be looked to mentor Reid in the coming season.
Whitner's strength in the box is not a shocking revelation. From day one, his strength has been stopping the run, while his weakness has been playing deeper in coverage. He is fine when things remain in front of him, as he is a big hitter who is also a sound technical tackler. However, once he has to turn and cover, he struggles. He can make plays on occasion, but for the most part, he is not the guy the 49ers want in coverage.
He did make his first Pro Bowl this past season, but that was due as much to the strength of the team raising the profile of quite a few players. I'd argue he was more worthy of a Pro Bowl nod in 2011.
Why he could improve in 2013
Whitner could put together an improved season if the players around him perform better. That means improved pass rush, solid play from the corners, and of course Eric Reid stepping up from day one. Whitner is still in the prime of NFL life, as he will be turning 28 this summer. That being said, it seems like we know what he is all about. He is still a solid safety, but he has his limitations. At his peak, he will be strong stopping the run, but require help in pass coverage.
Why he could regress in 2013
Whitner is only 28, but NFL careers can take a downturn fairly quickly. While Whitner made the Pro Bowl this past year, I felt that his performance took a step back compared to 2011. It is entirely possible he struggles a little more in 2013. I think he remains the same big-hitting run stopper, but the pass coverage is a concern. The 49ers will simply need to game-plan around it to hide the weakness.
Odds of making the roster
Whitner is entering the final year of his contract. The 49ers added Eric Reid in the draft, and have some young talent competing at the safety position. The only way Whitner does not make the roster is if he has an abysmal training camp and one of the young safeties blows everyone away. The 49ers will get practice time for Eric Reid, C.J. Spillman, Trenton Robinson, Craig Dahl and Michael Thomas alongside and in place of Donte Whitner at times. The 49ers could very well find a long-term answer at strong safety along with free safety, but I'm just not seeing it this year.